Deepwater Horizon Is a Human-Sized Disaster Movie

deepwater-horizon

Deepwater Horizon
Directed by Peter Berg
Opens September 30

In Deepwater Horizon, the central principle of offshore oil drilling is as simple as an upside-down Coke can. As his daughter rehearses a school presentation, the titular rig’s chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), opens a gash in the aluminum and inserts the scale model’s “pipeline,” explaining that extracting petroleum from beneath the ocean floor is not a process of pumping, but an imposition of control: Under immense pressure, the oil, once tapped, begins to burst forth, and the companies that profit from its sale are merely trying to slow this flow enough to capture it. When the sweet, brown substance finally explodes, a fizzy gusher atop the kitchen table, it foreshadows both the impending disaster and the streamlined force of the film itself. With Deepwater Horizon, despite its at times facile treatment of the facts, director Peter Berg has crafted a masterful, muscular actioner, one with an understanding of human stakes that puts most studio tentpoles to shame.

Adapted by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand from the New York Times‘ account of “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” the film applies its ferocious energies to recreating the blowout, explosion, and conflagration that engulfed the rig on April 20, 2010, killing 11, injuring 17, and causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. From this intent focus on the mechanics of catastrophe—on annular failures and magenta alarms, the storm of steel and forest of flame erupting into the Southern sky—Berg elicits terrific suspense; even the near-silent seep of oil into the drill room is frightening, the first buck of the geological bronco below the surface. As the disaster intensifies, Deepwater Horizon offers a white-knuckle reminder that our thirst for natural resources requires wrangling with the might of the Earth: A dangerous business, indeed.

It’s the film’s first act, however, that clarifies—and perhaps cautions against—Berg’s penchant for simplification, which in the unrelenting action of the film’s final two-thirds comes across as efficient, unmannered. As Williams, rig captain Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and helmswoman Andrea Freytas (Gina Rodriguez) begin their 21-day shift aboard, Deepwater Horizon confronts the corner-cutting that led the blowout by condensing the acquisitive negligence of British Petroleum into a single figure, Don Vidrine (the matchless John Malkovich), excising the arm-twisting of the corporation’s onshore officials altogether. Lacing his leisurely Cajun drawl with smiling, soft-spoken malice, Malkovich’s Vidrine is a scintillating villain, making magic with a blue marker and the words “bladder effect,” but the film’s reductive aspect undermines its otherwise admirable attention to BP’s malfeasance. “Hope ain’t a tactic, Don,” Williams says of the push to move on from “well from Hell,” but the abridgement of important details, in a film that purports to apprise a wide audience of the Deepwater Horizon’s fate for the first time, is a suspect technique of its own.

Still, Deepwater Horizon balances the occasional factual error or flat character—including Williams’ wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), left to fret at home as news of the explosion trickles in—with its convincing rendition of the rig’s terse patois, and ultimately with its lean, absorbing approach to the sheer terror of the experience. Piecing together pressure gauges, sudden surges of mud, and the sound of shrapnel whistling through water, Berg constructs a film in which the end of the world is not the only momentous occurrence. For those dwarfed by the towering fire, and indeed those consumed by it, the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon was no less significant for being confined to a platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater Horizon might be said to reflect the lesson Hollywood, in the course of this dreadful summer, seemed to have forgotten: It’s the scale we can comprehend—the human scale—that often produces the most powerful filmmaking.

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