[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival; Deepwater Horizon opens tomorrow.]
Disaster movies are usually guilt-free confections. They’re usually an act of nature, so there’s no one to blame, and they feature destruction so grandiose that it blunts the impact of the destruction to where we can enjoy the mayhem. In his new film Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg takes a drastically different approach in his disaster movie. The story is based on true events, and Berg makes it a point to keep his story as real as possible. By embracing this realism, the disaster in Deepwater Horizon becomes immediate and horrifying. While there are acts of heroism during the disaster, Berg always keeps his focus on the urgency of the situation rather than concocting a comforting tale of noble heroism. Berg also never lets us forget that this is a man-made disaster, and he points the finger squarely at BP.
The story mainly follows the Deepwater Horizon’s chief electrical technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) as he goes to work on the rig the day of the explosion. The first half of the movie is spent trying to lay the foundation of what exactly went wrong. We see Mike and the offshore installation manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) run down the technical problems they’re experiencing and butt heads with BP management, led by the venal Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich). The rig is 43 days over schedule and BP wants to start drilling, but Williams notes that 390 systems—10% of all systems—are down. Harrell reluctantly goes ahead with a test of the equipment, but the test eventually triggers an explosion that sends the entire rig up in flames. From there, the workers on the rig fight to escape with their lives.
Berg doesn’t shy away from getting deep into technical language in the first half of the film almost to the point where the jargon becomes indecipherable. Aside from a presentation about the basics of oil drilling from Williams’ daughter, there’s no audience surrogate, and Berg just expects us to keep up and understand that while we may not grasp the complexities of pouring concrete to keep the well safe, we certainly recognize that the BP executives are rushing because they’ve fallen behind and are now over-budget. Malkovich plays the sleaziness of Vidrine perfectly, and while it may not be fair to the real Vidrine, he serves as the representation of BP’s callowness and greed. You’re going to get mad at BP all over again.
When the rig eventually blows up, it’s nightmarish. Berg isn’t trying to thrill his audience. There’s nothing here that will make you feel good or triumphant beyond the understated heroism of the workers who tried to save each other’s lives. There are no big speeches and few grand gestures. Instead, Berg sticks us in the middle of the firestorm, and tries to put us in the mindset of those who were trapped on the flaming rig. It’s a total assault on the senses with the entire rig engulfed in flames and debris constantly raining down. 11 men lost their lives in the disaster, but looking at Berg’s depiction of the disaster, it feels like a miracle that more people didn’t perish.
This isn’t a piece of escapist fare. Even when you look at Mark Wahlberg, who typically would get to be the all-American hero who saves the day, he’s playing Williams as a low-key, regular guy. There may have been the temptation to give the story a Hollywood sheen, but Berg has found a way to get blockbuster effects while sacrificing none of the realism. The result is a film that will both infuriate and horrify in equal measure.
Some may feel that Deepwater Horizon doesn’t go far enough in criticizing BP or asking questions about our reliance on fossil fuels that leads to these rigs in the first place. However, by keeping the focus solely on the events of April 20, 2010, Berg comes up with a far more effective film that doesn’t need to pontificate to enrage and doesn’t need to be somber to pay tribute to those who died. The biggest tragedy is that there’s no guarantee this kind of hellish event won’t happen again. And like with the Deepwater Horizon, it won’t be an act of God. It will be an act of man.