There are times in the wake of great tragedy where stories of individuals are washed away as the larger story begins to surface. The BP oil disaster of 2010 was epic in scope: hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico and creating a massive environmental impact that is still being dealt with today. Stories of gross incompetence, an inability to stop the leak, and the damage to the coast of Gulf states shaped the narrative and gave the public plenty to chew on. The lives lost during the incident were little more than an afterthought.
The success of “Deepwater Horizon,” the new disaster thriller from Peter Berg, is taking a very complex story and provides some vastly needed humanization. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is an earnest oil company employee who provides for his family by working on deepwater oil rigs. It’s complicated work that requires a number of scientific disciplines. This is important because the first 40 minutes is spent painstakingly explaining the process of drilling for oil and the various issues being faced by the crew of the ill-fated rig. The crew carries most of the weight for the film’s first half, which contains a nice collection of recognizable actors, chewing scenery and looking hangry.
Kurt Russell growls his way through every scene as the one guy hellbent on ensuring the safety of the rig and asking the right questions. John Malkovich represents the real engine of the tragedy: the corporate shills who continued to push for results in spite of obvious warning signs. The company needs to get the oil pumping, as the Deepwater Horizon isn’t making them any money. These two sides go back and forth, putting members of the crew in a battle between the needs of the business and their safety. If there’s any doubt which side wins this argument, well, folks, you haven’t seen enough movies.
Around the halfway point, the film switches gears, and changes from a highly-charged philosophical battle to an actual battle between life and death. The pipe bursts, the oil spills everywhere, and before you can say, “oh, shit,” fiery explosions begin to consume the rig as the movie becomes a nail-biting disaster story.
Peter Berg is a very capable director; it seems like he has taken the torch from the great Tony Scott as he continues to create engaging, polished character dramas. He understands the most important part of any disaster movie is how the characters deal with catastrophe. This lesson goes back to the advent of the disaster movie. No matter how epic the engulfing flames of the “Towering Inferno” or the scope of the tidal wave in “The Poseidon Adventure,” it’s the people trying to survive that keep viewers invested.
Mark Wahlberg is a perfect fit for a movie like this; his wide-eyed glare and everyman charm makes him a likable central character for whom people genuinely want to root. Ultimately, his fate and chances for survival are what carry the emotional impact of the film.
Still, it’s not all perfect. There are few scenes early on that are almost laughable in their staging—most notably a science-fair scene, which is so embarrassing and blatant, it gives foreshadowing a bad name. The film gets creatively slippery when it tries to heap weight upon an already brutally tragic situation. However, in spite of some cringe-worthy moments of melodrama—and some questionable Cajun accents—“Deepwater Horizon” is an entertaining piece of cinema. It does a good job reminding audiences that, at the heart of every tragedy, are real people—some with good intentions, some with faulty moral compasses, and innocent victims struggling to survive.