Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon

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Tells the true story of a disaster on an off-shore oil rig.

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Peter Berg, 2010

When drilling expert Mike Williams (Marky Mark Wahlberg) heads out to the off-shore oil rig the Deepwater Horizon, he’s disturbed to discover that the BP executives there have failed to adequately carry out the proper safety checks on the concrete around the drill. He and the drill’s safety…head…guy, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), confront company suit Vidrine (John Malkovich) about the failure to conduct the test. The drill begins operations, but it’s not long before rig worker Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) discovers a problem. The malfunctioning rill causes a massive explosion that rips through the Deepwater Horizon, endangering the lives of everybody on board. Mike, Jimmy, Caleb, and the rig’s designer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) work together to keep the rig afloat and save as many lives as they can.

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Deepwater Horizon is dramatisation of the real events that occurred in 2010, causing the worst oil spill in the history of the US and killing eleven people. The film amps up the drama, clearly telling an alternate version of the true events, but it’s a tense, compelling, and surprisingly well-directed piece of drama from director Peter Berg. The solid cast give mostly great performances, with the exception of the oddly distracting John Malkovich; his intensity is overshadowed by a weirdly OTT Cajun accent choice that grates. The film starts slow, but gives us plenty of time to get to know and like the characters and understand exactly how the drill works and what it is that’s going wrong before the disaster kicks in. It’s smart, tight filmmaking, providing clarity without sacrificing realistic characterisation or the slow build of tension during the first half of the film. You really get the sense that this is a group of people who know each other well, who work together in this remote location and have found strange and silly ways of keeping each other entertained, and who are dedicated to following procedures that keep each other safe. It makes the moment of the explosion that much more potent. Watching everyone struggle to contain and then survive the disaster is fascinating; Kurt Russell dragging his damaged body around to fulfil his responsibilities, Gina Rodriguez stuck in a chain of command that doesn’t allow her brilliance to take over and fix the situation, and Mark Wahlberg trying to stay level-headed and save as many people as he can are all equally interesting. Dylan O’Brien’s Caleb outshines his co-workers as his own mettle is tested.

With Deepwater Horizon’s tight focus on, and sympathy for, the middle-class workers whose lives were turned upside down by the 2010 incident, it’s a bit of a shame when the film falls into grandiose, nationalistic Roland Emmerich-style territory. There are, fortunately, not too many such moments in this more realistic take on the event, but they’re there: an American flag fluttering above the flames as a nameless hero sacrifices himself to save others, for instance, or the moment when Mike has to save Andrea. It falls into paternalistic traps rather than presenting them all as equal survivors, and that’s frustrating – and frankly unnecessary, given that it seems to be a significant change from the real events. Kate Hudson is stuck in the “worried wife” role, a trope which I will frankly be happy to see the back of unless someone finds a better way to do it one day. There are so many strong emotional moments in the film that it feels cheap when she’s given “wait around and cry” to deal with. Still, Deepwater Horizon is an arresting and interesting film about a real-life disaster, and promises bigger things to come from Peter Berg.

Deepwater Horizon on IMDb

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