It gushed for 87 days. In 2010 the estimated outpouring of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was 210 million US gallons. It is, to date, the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
Because of gross negligence and reckless conduct, BP (British Petroleum) was ruled principally responsible. The corporate settlement became the largest in U.S. history. It’s a fascinating story, and the more you know, the angrier you’ll get, but it’s not the one covered by director Peter Berg’s action/thriller, Deepwater Horizon. The events of the aftermath may be better served sometime down the road with a new, factually thorough documentary. Berg’s film is centered squarely on the oil rig disaster, the moments leading up to it, the event itself and the bravery of those selflessly helping each other to safety while trying to escape the raging fire. True to its disaster movie roots, the film sticks to the conventions of its genre. And more importantly, unlike those fictional disaster movie thrillers of burning skyscrapers and overturned, sinking cruises, the fact that this one is based on a real event makes it pack an even more emotional punch.
Even though the men of the nine year-old offshore drilling unit were clueless at the time, the years of looking back and investigating the records and uncovering the causes, hindsight is suddenly 20/20. The answers are there, and as a result, movie audiences become privvy to sights unknown and unseen by the Deepwater Horizon crew. A single bubble escaping from a crack on the ocean floor heralds the beginning. All it needs is a pressured push and it’s obvious; the whole floor will open up.
Here, director Berg’s story-telling presentation is not unlike that of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 where a real life disaster and a difficult watch is tastefully approached with a documentary, rough-around-the-edges look. The major difference is that unlike the earlier film where largely unknowns were cast, Deepwater Horizon has some marquee-value names, though in both films we’re really flies-on-the-wall, peering in, listening to what’s unfolding and attempting to understand the technical jargon as fast as it’s barked. While not possessing quite the chaotic hand-held visuals of Greengrass’ urgent, faux doc style, Berg’s camera still spins, turns and rushes in and out among the pandemonium resulting with a rush of constant adrenaline. With the speed of action and the high-velocity editing, it’s not always easy to determine what’s happening, but you get the idea while catching your breath. The same with the technical jargon. In moments leading up to the explosion, a lot of complicated things are said about pressure testing and re-testing the integrity of the production casing. Most of it will go over your head. But the characters know what they’re talking about and it’s delivered with such earnest passion and concern for what could go wrong that, again, you get the overall idea.
“The projectiles were coming from everywhere,” states the weary, off-screen voice of oil rig worker Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) at a hearing. “The heat was overwhelming,” he adds. The voices come from a Q&A session played out during the opening credits. Once the question, “Do you know why you never heard that alarm?” is asked, followed by a lengthy pause, the film begins and we backtrack to the that morning when Williams, safely at home with his wife (Kate Hudson) and family, is dragging himself out of bed to face the day.
After a moment of comical foreboding – a can of soda under pressure explodes on the family kitchen table and gushes its contents – Williams and his crew captain, Jimmy Harrell (a constantly grumpy Kurt Russell, but grumpy for good reason), are on a helicopter with other employees and two BP representatives heading out across the Gulf of Mexico, forty-one miles off the Louisiana coast to the floating drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon.
The explosion doesn’t occur for approximately fifty minutes into the film, but until then we’re treated to life of normalcy on a working oil rig as the workers gossip, sing, play air-guitar and generally pass the time amusing themselves as they twist knobs, tighten bolts and go about their daily business of general maintenance. The senior staff in the offices discuss safety concerns with BP operative Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) who is there to oversee and cover all company concerns, like maximizing profits and minimizing costs. While Mr. Jimmy, as Kurt Russell’s character is always addressed, and Williams want another, more thorough test on the cement casing around the pipe, the BP company man is not concerned, stating, “We are confident in the question of our cement,” pronounced see-ment. When Williams makes a critical though valid remark about the cheap, corner-cutting practices of a 186 billion dollar company, Malkovich’s operative, smiles. “That’s why we’re a 186 billion dollar company,” he states with a grin. Then it happens.
Mud leaks, the pipe gives, oil gushes and one heck of an explosion follows, sending workers’ bodies flying. The widescreen becomes a chaotic, frantic mess as men pull each other to safety, going above and beyond the call of duty in order to do whatever they can to save each others’ lives. From bottom to the top, the rig is a blazing, fiery furnace. “Deepwater Horizon has exploded and is on fire!” declares the frenzied, emergency radio call.
The concern of who falls victim and who survives is minimized when we know that Wahlberg’s Williams is the one reflecting back on the events, but that doesn’t stop the overall, gut-wrenching effect taking hold, created effectively by director Berg’s dizzying camera work; he puts us right there in the middle of everything. When those who finally survive and stagger back to the mainland where concerned family members anxiously await any news of their missing loved ones, the emotional impact is overwhelming. We may not fully understand all the whys and wherefores, but if Deepwater Horizon does anything, it makes what was a devastating event seen only as a headlining story between the commercials on the evening news something all too real.
A word on its big screen IMAX presentation. Deepwater Horizon is all close-ups, fast edits and hand-held camerawork that ducks and dives around the characters as if in a frantic state of constantly searching for something to focus upon and never finding it. And that style is not reduced to just the action. Simple, non-action scenes like the extreme close-up of Walhberg getting out of bed or the camera following him closely around the kitchen, shadowing his every move as he reaches down for the drawer or up to a wall cabinet are not conducive to IMAX. Even the helicopter flight where employees pass quick remarks to each other as they fly over the gulf is shot with close-ups and fast edits. The film may be about a massive, spectacular disaster, but it’s not shot like one. By thrusting us in the middle of things, the film becomes an intimate, visceral telling of a terrible event; the spectacle is seen in brief glances. See it by all means, but see it on a smaller screen. The smaller, the better.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 99 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)