Visually stunning and emotionally resonant, Deepwater Horizon is the kind of “based on a true story” movie that honors its subject, but is also eminently watchable.
Disaster movies are already hard enough to pull off. But disaster movies based on a real event are even harder. You have to balance the expectations of the genre with reverence for the victims. United 93 is probably the most recent example of a movie that was actually able to successfully pull this off. Paul Greengrass isn’t concerned with the facts, though he certainly gets them all right. Instead he takes a humanistic approach in telling the story. While Peter Berg doesn’t quite reach those heights, Deepwater Horizon is a more than solid depiction of a horrific event that shows reverence for the victims and indicts those at fault.
It’s pretty fantastic that the movie actually works. Not only is it a disaster movie based on a real event. It is probably one of the most highly publicized disasters in U.S. history this decade. Because of that, the audience has an opinion going into the movie. They have an idea of the facts. So, it was important for the movie to either present something new or to present it in an interesting way. Berg was able to do both.
Deepwater Horizon tells the story of the worst oil industry disaster in U.S. history. It claimed the lives of 11 people and caused incalculable damage to the environment of the Gulf of Mexico. The movie follows the men and women aboard the oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the time just before and after the explosion.
We are introduced to the members of the crew of the rig before they set off to board. This includes chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), dynamic positioning officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), and crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), affectionately known as Mr. Jimmy. Berg uses the beginning of the movie to place the crew in their lives outside the rig. Mike “spends time” with his wife and helps his daughter with a project – a little expositional setup, but it’s actually kind of cute. Andrea tries to get her pet project Mustang to work. It’s all to serve the story and the real-life people behind it. Berg doesn’t forget that he’s telling someone’s story.
When we get on the rig, we are introduced to Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who is quickly established as the villain. In real life, it was determined that Vidrine was following orders from higher-ups at BP. However, in the movie, he is the representative of the entire company. Of course, this happens a lot to simplify a story. However, anyone that knows anything about this story knows that BP came away with a slap on the wrist and a divot in their earnings report. It’s a movie with something on its mind. That something is to remind people that the eleven deaths and billions of dollars in damages resulted in no change and no accountability from the company. The idea of corporate greed is not a new one. However, Deepwater Horizon shows the horrifying possibilites brought on by it.
The first half of the movie largely sets up the chain of events and decisions that caused the disaster. I really appreciated the screenwriters’ care to not dumb down the events. They showed trust in the audience to understand the mechanics. Terms like PSI and negative pressure are thrown around but don’t feel like jargon. Actually, much of the first act feels almost like it could be a documentary. The movie takes care to give you detail by showing facts and labels on screen. However, it’s the dialogue that makes it shine. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand actually wrote dialogue the way that people speak. Conversations switch subjects and drift. Characters recall past events. It’s the kind of screenwriting we need more of.
However, from the second that the rig actually blows, there is no stopping the momentum of the film. Peter Berg is able to create a caustic environment that makes you feel the heat of the fire and the power of the explosions. Visually the film is stunning. It is a new high in terms of photo-realistic effects. Balls of fire, dangerous jets of mud, and sudden jolts of pressure actually feel dangerous. That’s a hard thing to achieve in an action movie. It makes you feel like the characters are vulnerable. Granted, they are on a flaming glorified boat that is 46 miles off the coast.
Mark Wahlberg gives a surprisingly strong performance here, which is something I never thought I’d say. Though for much of the movie he is the macho hero with near superman abilities. But when he is given the chance to emote, it’s heartbreaking. Another highlight is Kurt Russell as the stern crew chief who takes BP head on. However, John Malkovich as the sneering BP executive steals the entire movie. He’s the kind of slithery corporate puppet that is needed for the audience to direct its anger at. And though he might as well be a mustache twirling villain, it works. He’s performing to the back of the theater and the movie is all better for it.
Deepwater Horizon is deeply entertaining, visually stunning, and emotional. Though it has its flaws, it also has moments of astonishment that show it for what it is: a technical achievement. The visual effects feat of the second half is reason enough to see it. However, it has a surprising emotional depth that makes it more than just a disaster movie. Even then, what makes it eminently rewatchable is this thrilling story that you can’t imagine being real.