• Mark Wahlberg in 'Deepwater Horizon'. (Roadshow Films)Source: Roadshow Films

On April 20th, 2010, one of the world’s largest man-made disasters occurred on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. 

True life drama is big on spectacle, light on context

There’s definitely a story to be told about how a fault in a test drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico ended up causing the biggest oil spill in United States history. Disappointingly, this film is only interested in the most obviously dramatic part of the disaster: the day the rig suffered an uncontrollable blowout and exploded, causing the deaths of seven crew. The wider story – the neglect and cost-cutting that led to the disaster, the oil gusher that flowed for at least 87 days and spilled almost five million barrels of oil into the ocean and the US coastline – barely gets a look in. This is a tale of individual heroism, not ecological disaster.

Deepwater Horizon focuses almost entirely on the day of the disaster, starting with electrician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), helmsman Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and rig boss “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) being choppered out to start their shift on the rig. From the beginning things don’t look good; the BP executives on board have sent home a team of experts before they finished their tests so they can hurry the Deepwater Horizon along to her next exploration site. Mr Jimmy wants more tests done, but company man Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich, displaying an extremely dubious but entertaining Cajun accent) wants to wrap things up. When Mike points out that the whole rig is barely hanging together, that tips the scales and a new series of pressure tests are run.

Peter Berg (who took over this film partway into production) is not a particularly subtle director. Look no further than this film’s “working stiffs versus the company pen-pushers” dynamic. But as his hit Lone Survivor (also with Mark Wahlberg) showed, he’s very good at creating tension and releasing it through action. The opening stretch of this film is largely scene-setting and info dumps to explain exactly how the rig works and how it’s designed to handle the extreme pressure that it’s tapping into – the latter hilariously demonstrated by Mike’s primary school-age daughter when she rams a pen into a soft drink can as part of her “what my daddy does” demonstration (it promptly froths over, which you’d think would not be a good sign). But the info-dumps never feel clumsy; Berg has a good feel for the daily grind of the rig’s hard-working crew and so their scenes all feel authentically lived-in.

What follows when the well finally does blow is pretty close to a hell on earth as the rig is first filled with shrapnel – if nothing else, this film is a reminder that when pressure makes something explode, bits of that something go everywhere – then fire as the gas ignites. Berg’s skill with action doesn’t let him down as some survivors flee and others try (and fail) to cap the well and save the rig: it’s a fairly basic disaster movie story (a few moments are even reminiscent of Titanic), but it’s told with flair and an eye for tension of the most claustrophobic kind.

There’s no denying seeing the rig explode and burn is thrilling. The human-level drama is a bit less impressive. Kate Hudson is stuck at home playing the clichéd wife on the phone, while Mike’s post-trauma stress might have been insightful a decade ago but in the wake of films like Captain Phillips it’s now par for the course. And the way this basically ignores the wider ramifications of the disaster gives this solid, largely entertaining tale of working-class heroism a slightly sour aftertaste. The rig exploded, some good men died and the rest were lucky to get out. Nature? It can take care of itself.

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