Review: "Deepwater Horizon," based on the BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico

"I became totally engrossed in the action, and cried when I saw the faces of the people that died."



Deepwater Horizon
is a powerful disaster film from director Peter Berg that does not mess around. It's efficient, explaining the basics and dropping in an omen or two while introducing a few key characters. It shows you how things look when working correctly. Then it slams you.

The film recreates the 2010 explosion and sinking of the titular BP-leased, Transocean-owned deep water drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were killed, and oil flowed from the ocean floor for 87 days before it was capped off. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. It was a nightmare. Six years later, many people continue boycotting BP.

Our story begins in the home of Mike and Felicia Williams, played by Mark Wahlberg (who starred in Berg's Lone Survivor) and Kate Hudson, as Mike prepares to leave for a stint at sea. Wahlberg bulked up for the role and – following the Hollywood Rule of Weight Gain or Loss by Male Stars – appears shirtless, so the audience can see the great sacrifices the actor has made for his art. You'll be pleased to know that Wahlberg looks suitably beefy – well-marbled, in fact.

Mike is an engineer on the DH, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) is his boss. At the beginning of the fateful trek, they are joined by a few BP execs there to present Jimmy with a safety award. Uh-oh. Among the execs is a guy named Vidrine, playing with a silky Southern accent by John Malkovich. My son, who knew nothing about the story, leaned forward in his seat as soon as Malkovich appeared. After Malkovich said his first sentence, my son leaned over and whispered “He's the bad guy.” Way to go, son!

At the beginning of the visit, by the way, Jimmy asks one of the BP suits to take off his magenta tie, because it is the same color as a severe warning signal. Uh-oh again. And earlier, when Mike was home with Felicia, he tried to explain to his daughter how the DH worked, using a can of Coke as a surrogate vessel, only to end up with foam spurting all over the place

So many uh-ohs ...

If this sounds like standard disaster movie stuff, it is, but Berg keeps it brisk and crisp. He understands we need to know a few people in order to increase the drama when everything goes bad, and he does so without burdening us with a load of contrived melodramas.

He also makes a choice that is proving to be a bit controversial. On the Deepwater Horizon we hear the crew talking to one another as they gear up operations. What is normal work conversation to them is technobabble to most of us. I had no problem with that—in fact, I appreciated the fact that we weren't being spoon-fed explanations for the ship's operations.

Once the disaster begins, the tech talk becomes even more difficult to understand. The general audio grows harder to decipher. There has been speculation that Berg had genuine technical troubles recording the scenes. Don't know about that, all I can say is that I thought it made the film play more realistically.

Berg puts us in the middle of a horrific disaster at sea. At first we watch the men trying to fix the problems. Soon, they must focus their attention solely on getting out alive. Berg strips his disaster to the bare essentials. Dialogue is irrelevant, getting to a life raft is all that matters. There are rescues, attempted rescues, and noble gestures. What we see and hear feels genuine. While driving home from the screening, it struck me that Berg and company did their jobs so well that I never thought about the special effects. How much was done with real sets on water with real fire? How much was CGI? I don't know and thanks for that.

Deepwater Horizon closes with the names and faces of the 11 human beings that died in the disaster. Is it right to turn such a recent tragedy into entertainment? There's something to discuss during your drive home after the movie. As for me, I bought the set-up, became totally engrossed in the action, and cried when I saw the faces of people that died.


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