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Review: Deepwater Horizon (2016)

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

Directed by: Peter Berg

Premise: Based on a true story. An explosion occurs aboard the BP oil platform Deepwater Horizon, putting the entire crew at risk and creating one of the worst oil spills in the history of the petroleum industry.

What Works: The basic facts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are fairly well known and the movie doesn’t necessarily reveal much about the incident. But the purpose of a dramatization is to portray the human experience of a historical event and Deepwater Horizon does that exceedingly well. The movie puts the audience on the deck of the oil rig, recreating what life was like for the employees and then placing the viewer in the midst of the disaster. The picture begins as a procedural, focusing on Chief Electronic Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Dynamic Positioning Operator Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) as they arrive at the Deepwater Horizon for the next work rotation. The filmmakers avoid the kind of artificial expository dialogue that would spoon feed information to the audience. Instead, the movie provides us with images of the oil rig’s operations and relies on the audience to put it together. This requires the viewer to pay attention which invests us in the movie but it also creates an impression of reality. That’s one of the greatest assets of this film. Director Peter Berg, who previously helmed 2004’s Friday Night Lights and 2013’s Lone Survivor, has a knack for detail and immersing the audience in a specific subculture. The cinematography of Deepwater Horizon is frequently handheld and the lighting appears very natural. This style especially pays off once the disaster begins. Deepwater Horizon places the audience alongside these men and women on a burning oil rig and the film creates an immediate visceral experience comparable to the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Admirably, the filmmakers don’t overplay the drama or the heroism. The movie avoids Hollywood hero shots of the actors and the music score by Steve Jablonsky is restrained. The people on the rig do their best in a desperate situation but everyone is palpably scared for their lives. The human approach to the material includes lead actor Mark Wahlberg and Deepwater Horizon has one of his best performances. He’s working within the kind of blue collar survivor role he does well but Wahlberg is more believably in the moment than in his other films.  

What Doesn’t: As a feature film based on a true story, Deepwater Horizon does an excellent job of balancing the facts with dramatic necessity. However, there are two respects in which the film falls short. The first is the matter of culpability. As presented in the film, BP Rig Supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) prioritized profits over safety and set off the chain of events that culminated in the explosion. But as described by Joel Achenbach, who covered the Deepwater Horizon story for The Washington Post, the blame for the spill is more complex than that and involved a series of mistakes and bad judgements that emerged out of BP’s corporate culture. The other respect in which Deepwater Horizon falls short as a dramatization is in its limited scope. This is an A-to-Z survival story, not unlike The Towering Inferno. But the rig workers escape from the fire was just the first part of a much longer saga. The disaster released 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating the ecology and the economies of coastal cities and states. Ultimately, the Deepwater Horizon story requires another movie and it’s not entirely fair to criticize this film for ignoring later events that were beyond the purview of the story the filmmakers were trying to tell.

Bottom Line: Deepwater Horizon is an extraordinary visceral experience. It may not tell the whole story of the BP disaster but it does place the audience in the midst of a horrific event and tell a gripping story of survival that is also full of humanity.

Episode: #616 (October 16, 2016)