There is very little messing around in Peter Berg’s dramatisation of the 2010 BP Oil Spill on the titular Deepwater Horizon oilrig. This is a restrained, no frills disaster movie, devoid of the over-stylisation, sickening melodrama and narrative absurdity that so often characterises the genre. Berg’s film makes a very angry, very direct point, targeting the greed of the company men that led to the biggest oil spill in history.
As with any disaster movie, the narrative setup is fairly formulaic. We are given brief glimpses of the lead players’ lives before they head off to board the Deepwater Horizon. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, a lead engineer onboard the rig. Together with his wife (Kate Hudson), Williams helps his daughter with a school project about his job. While the scene is loaded with a little too much pre-disaster happy-family cheese, this exchange expertly provides some much need scientific exposition about the Deepwater Horizon; an exploding can of coke (used in his demonstration) has never been so ominous.
Boarding a chopper to fly out to the oilrig, Williams meets with crewmember Andre Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and installation manager “Mr.” Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). Russell’s performance here is a sharp as his crew cut, full of gruff charm and biting wisdom in the face of the BP company men. John Malkovich is perhaps a little over the top here as main antagonist Donald Vidrine, flashing a cartoonishly evil grin with each affirmation of his greed. This greed, ultimately, leads to an omitted ‘cement test’ and a rushed pressure check – something we learn very quickly “ain’t smart”.
The early stages of Deepwater Horizon are expertly crafted. The editing is super sharp and while the engineering mumbo jumbo is perhaps a little overwhelming at first, Berg’s unembellished, restrained approach allows for a full understanding of the situation before disaster strikes. The tension builds like the mounting pressure on the rig’s central oil pipe and when it inevitably bursts, the action is relentless. Most spectators will spend the majority of the Deepwater Horizon’s action-packed second half with their behinds teetering on seat edges. However, after tragedy strikes, the action is often a little too frantic, almost incoherent at times – we’re frequently left wondering why people are doing the brave, dumb things they’re doing.
Despite this, Berg maintains a consistently exciting pace and the film remains entertaining from start to finish. As with any disaster movie worth its salt, Deepwater Horizon is replete with a number of cringe-inducing injuries. Human bodies are chewed up and spat out by the rig’s collapsing structure; the results are often very hard to watch. However, the tragedy is rarely exploited and avoids getting too melodramatic in its climactic moments.
There’s little nuance here – the heroes are without flaw and the villains so immoral it often borders on parody. Deepwater Horizon points its finger hard and fast at those responsible for the tragedy and sacralises the heroism of those effected. That’s par for the course with any disaster movie and given that the roots here are firmly planted in reality, the dramatic events are all the more inspiring. Berg manages to capture the essence of the real life events while maintaining the characteristic formula of the genre. A thrilling disaster movie and a fine tribute to the victims of the tragedy.