On April 20, 2010, a massive explosion occurred aboard the mobile oil rig Deepwater Horizon, resulting in one of the largest environmental disasters ever in the history of the United States. For months after, the media focused on the ecological and economic disaster to the Gulf of Mexico and cast blame on British Petroleum for the damage done. What was discussed much less was the deaths of 11 crewmembers aboard the vessel. The film Deepwater Horizon, based on a New York Times expose, tells the story of the crew of the doomed ship.
A sort of “Titanic without the love story,” Deepwater Horizon portrays a well-known historic oceanic disaster where the audience knows what’s coming. The impending explosion is well-telegraphed a little too early in the movie, with the characters worried about bad omens (a BP executive is wearing a magenta tie, the same color as the worst alarm level for the ship) and the camera constantly showing us the bubbles at the bottom of the gulf. The tension is balanced by getting us into the heads of the main crew members prior to their departure for the ship. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, the Horizon‘s technician who’s hopeful to get back to his wife and bring his daughter a dinosaur tooth; Gina Rodriguez is Andrea Fleytas, a crew officer who’s trying to get her motorcycle working; and Kurt Russel is Jimmy Harrell, the ship’s long-experienced boss, who’s just trying to run a tight ship.
Deepwater Horizon makes no bones about who’s at fault for the disaster. With the ship’s operation weeks behind schedule, the film constantly reminds us that BP initiated cost-cutting measures in order to keep things moving. Critically-needed concrete wasn’t laid at the drilling site, and a BP engineer, Mr. Vidrine (John Malkovich), forcefully pushes the crew to drill where the crew is concerned that the pressure is too high. BP’s villainous negligence would be comical (they give Jimmy Harrell a safety award in the final hours before the explosion) if it weren’t also painfully true.
Disaster doesn’t strike until long into the movie, but when it does, it’s impressive and certainly not sanitized. Despite showing countless deaths, Titanic weirdly romanticized the tragedy of the events it portrayed. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t do that. The impressive set design shows a substantial recreation of the drilling rig and then proceeds to blow the hell out of it with explosions of mud and then fire. The vessel becomes a towering inferno, where cranes spin out of control and workers are desperate to get to the few lifeboats before it’s too late. Russel’s character is injured in the shower, showing a painful portrayal of a man covered in glass who needs to get into safety gear before he can escape.
Deepwater Horizon has two weaknesses, one of which is also its strength. First is the acting, which is fine–the trio of Wahlberg, Rodriguez, and Russell exhibit great performances as the key Horizon employees who are trying to keep things sane in the face of an escalating disaster. Each portrays a combination of human courage and human frailty as they show incredible resolve in the face of certain death, yet are also capable of falling apart. Wahlberg’s character is able to leap hundreds of feet over flames to get to safety, yet also collapses like a baby when he begins to suffer survivor’s guilt. The downside of all this is that, in focusing on the ship’s key players, we never get to know the rest of the crew. The film is dedicated to the 11 people who died, yet none of them are focal points of the movie.
The other weakness is the abruptness of the movie’s conclusion. Despite having the film revolve around those three specific characters, the story manages to drop them as quickly as the rest of the country did back in 2010. Once the rescue is complete, we get a quick glimpse at the psychological damage done to Wahlberg’s character, and then a brief montage scene gives us the aftermath and a list of the dead. This is the kind of story that begs for more information on disaster survival, but it doesn’t come.
Still, in the intervening period between the setup and the conclusion, Deepwater Horizon gives us an impressive look at both corporate greed and unappreciated American heroism. This movie is worth a look at an overlooked part of one of the biggest events of the last decade.
Rating: Three out of five stars.