There are so many distressing, infuriating aspects to the 2010 BP oil spill that to list them all would encompass this entire review. You can find any of the hundreds of environmental blogs that popped up in the disaster's wake for that. A combination of incompetence, negligence, and corporate greed led to the April 20th 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, spilling a record amount of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. While the sheer amount of damage done to the eco-system is devastating, what got lost in the coverage were the lives of the men and women aboard the vessel at the time. 126 men and women were there when it occurred; 11 of them were killed. Those people deserve to be remembered and honored, and Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon honors their memory in one of the most emotional and thrilling disaster movies in recent years.
For the record, this isn't some fictional nonsense like San Andreas where The Rock swings in to save everyone from an earthquake. The stakes in Deepwater Horizon are real and have lasting impact. While the framework is very much like old school disaster thrillers, Berg and star Mark Wahlberg bring a surprising amount of humanity that emerges through the chaos. It's similar to what the duo was able to accomplish a couple of years ago in Lone Survivor, making them the go-to team for non-fiction survival narratives. While it's easy to knock Berg for his knuckle-headed action flick tendencies, when it counts he brings a surprising amount of character detail, seen in everything from The Kingdom to Friday Night Lights. And he's able to do it in a way that keeps that mainstream sensibility, which may be why he replaced prior director J.C. Chandor, who has never shown any such interest.
This is a film of simple acts of human kindness that translate into real heroism, and the biggest hero of all is Mike Williams (Wahlberg), a TransOcean electrician who appears to be friends with everybody on-site...well, except for the big-wigs from BP like Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) who care more about speed than safety. Early on we get a glimpse of Mike's home life; his young daughter preparing a school project on her Daddy's job "taming the dinosaurs", referring to the fossil fuels taken from dinosaur fossils. Along with his wife (Kate Hudson) they watch their daughter's project, a soda-filled recreation of her daddy's job pouring mud down the well to prevent pressure buildup. Of course the project erupts, a simple and obviously foreboding sign of what her Dad is about to face. If only it were Coca-Cola spewing forth from that well then everybody could just grab a glass and move on.
Berg, along with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sands, waste no time in ramping up the tension. It's immediate from the time Mike, senior captain Jimmy (Kurt Russell), and technician Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) arrive on-site. The prior team didn't complete a specific safety task regarding the mud flow, and the current crew, including drill worker Caleb (Dylan O'Brien) are beginning to wonder what's going on. Of course it has to do with BP, who are looking for ways to get more oil faster and cheaper, and if that means cutting a few things they deem unnecessary then so be it. While the film largely stays out of the blame game, it's clear on BP's role in the disaster. We are definitely meant to see them as the bad guy, even if it isn't spelled-out for us directly.
What is spelled-out to an aggravating degree are the reasons for the explosion. Once the rig erupts into a massive fireball most of the explanations fall by the wayside. There's simply too much going on as the crew scramble for their lives, drowning in a thunderstorm of oil and mud. But before then we get a cloudy attempt to explain everything that led to the disaster. While not that difficult to understand; basically it has to do with mud overflow, pressure buildup, and the release of natural gases, it's also not very interesting to listen to. When fiery Hell breaks loose that's when the movie also heats up. Berg has never been one to shy away from anything and he assails you with carnage, so that you may be tempted to look away or shield your eyes. The quick editing, like being tossed in the heart of a maelstrom, only adds to the hyper-reality of it all. But it's enough to put you right in the middle of what had to be a scene of extreme bedlam as the survivors raced to reach the lifeboats. Others risked their lives to try and stop the disaster from getting worse and maybe if their lucky save a few lives. Wahlberg and Rodriguez are particularly great in these life-saving moments because they aren't trying to act like superheroes. They react like normal people would; they are scared, worried they'll never see their families again. That fear is palpable, but so is their survival instinct.
You wish Deepwater Horizon had spent more time on the environmental impact of the spill, or on the punishments (or relative lack thereof) meted out against BP and Transocean. Berg's tendency to push his own patriotism on us is also pretty distracting. Do he and Michael Bay get their billowing American flags from the same shop? The missteps are minor, especially in light of a movie that could have been a disaster in its own right. But Berg's heart was always in the right place and the story told in Deepwater Horizon gives the survivors and victims a chance to finally be recognized.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5