Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon is a compelling, workmanlike, gearhead recreation of a tragedy that was a prelude to an ecological disaster. He’s not so much concerned with artificially inflated human drama or even in the resulting fallout from the 2010 deep sea oil rig explosion that left several BP employees dead while millions of gallons of crude gushed into the ocean. Berg’s films (from Friday Night Lights to Battleship) are always most interested in group efforts. This one’s about systems failing, and a group who must survive as best they can when it blows up in their faces. There’s the usual disaster movie opening acts which introduce a variety of recognizable actors showing up to work on the rig and the various tensions slowly straining between the men who are there to put in hard work and the men who are there to cut corners. The sharply drawn division between the laborers and the money men put me in mind of The Towering Inferno, while the somber just-the-facts tick-tock of daily routine felt more in line with the grim United 93. The synthesis of these two approaches is compelling enough, but the movie really comes alive when it all blows up.
Because Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) take such an interest in the mechanics of the Deepwater Horizon in the movie’s throat-clearing beginning, with loving looks at the machinery including a camera sliding up the main pipe’s muddy buildup like a colonoscopy, there’s no need for belabored explanation later. Because they let us know how it’s supposed to work, they can let the pressure build until the rig erupts. We know what’s wrong. The way there provides human stakes, letting us watch good average capable workaday guys trying their hardest to make the task of seemingly impossible corporate orders – personified by meek dopes in polo shirts – work anyway. There’s Mark Wahlberg doing his earnest best, and Kurt Russell commanding attention and respect (and rocking a fine mustache). There’s no-nonsense Gina Rodriguez and sweet Dylan O’Brien and kind Ethan Suplee. They’re likable, but then there’s John Malkovich, bald and chewing through a splendid accent as the guy from the head office willing to push forward without completing all the necessary safety checks. Even if you didn’t know where this is going, you’d know where this is going.
You’d certainly know something’s about to blow if you paid attention to the heavy-handed foreshadowing. Before leaving for the rig, Wahlbeg and his wife (Kate Hudson) watch their adorable moppet show off her visual aid for a career day explanation of her dad’s job. It’s a Coke can she manipulates like it’s underground undersea oil. As the scene ends, the can ominously explodes. Later, Russell is handed a safety award by visiting company men, a scene crosscut with Malkovich barking at underlings to ignore a warning about unsafe pressure in the pumps. So the movie lays it on a little thick. But when the danger flares, the movie’s ready to turn its eye on knobs, dials, gears, switches, buttons, keys, screens, alarms, propellers, tubes, signals, readouts, levers, and more into watching every one fail. As the whole oil rig comes crashing down around the characters, they spring into action, trying to contain the mess or, failing that, getting themselves and their co-workers to safety. Everyone on screen is coated in grease, mud, and blood. It becomes a loud, cacophonous series of explosive sequences, one perilous development leading inexorably to the next as everything falls apart.
There are political points to be made through a story like this, but Berg keeps that ambiguous. It’s a celebration of hardworking human spirit and a condemnation of heartless profit motives driving them to doom. It’s a business calamity with bloody casualties, bailed out by civic good. We see the coast guard fly into action (an echo of Sully, the other recent-event-turned-movie of the moment), and the people on board the rig do all they can to help their fellow workers. There’s a thrill to watch such dramatic life-and-death circumstances play out on the big screen, the effects large and convincing, the booming sound design rattling the theater seats with every new blast of the inferno. But there’s also sadness to the spectacle. When one man sacrifices himself to stop a piece of equipment from falling on others, Berg holds close on his wincing face, then watches as he’s blown out a window, smacking into a bulkhead on his way out of sight. I fleetingly wondered what it would be like for the real man’s family to see this movie, and I hoped they wouldn’t. And yet the movie is so effectively produced, I was fascinated by its every development, as the best laid plans of men go horribly wrong in spectacular fashion.