Deepwater Horizon

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 30, 2016

Mark Wahlberg stars in 'Deepwater Horizon'
Mark Wahlberg stars in 'Deepwater Horizon'  

The catastrophic oil spill that took place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was a months-long environmental nightmare that gripped the world and gave BP Oil something of a black eye. But it's the destruction of the drilling rig that happened at the start of the disaster that holds the lessons from which we might learn a thing or two.

"Deepwater Horizon" concerns itself with the events leading up to the rig's fiery destruction, and if the movie's pace hearkens to that of the great disaster movies of the 1970s -- where the first half of the movie was all setup and character development -- that's so much the better, because there's some real technical and dramatic meat to offer.

The film does have a formulaic gloss from time to time. When we first meet Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the rig's chief electronics engineer, it's at home with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). A scene in which the precocious Sydney rehearses a school presentation explaining what her father does serves as an explanation for the audience of the natural forces involved in drilling oil wells deep under the ocean surface, and the hazards such work entail. For one thing, pockets of oil are under enormous pressure, and the technological challenges of dealing with the drilling of wells are complicated -- but so much so that a few hundred tons of heavy mud won't do the trick to keep a lid on things.

Until, that is, they don't, in which case you need your equipment to be in top operating order. That's the problem the Deepwater Horizon encounters while working on what its crew call "the well from Hell" -- the rig itself is going to hell, too, and it's all Williams can do to keep it limping along. The bottom line being the bottom line, there's too little interest in keeping the rig well maintained, and BP higher-ups are all too willing to cut corners when it comes to safety. You can see where this is heading.

For a film drawn from true events, it's surprisingly literary. Omens abound, from Williams having an uneasy gut feeling, to a seabird hitting a helicopter ferrying workers the 40-plus miles off shore to the rig, to a slimy executive heedlessly wearing a magenta tie (magenta being the color of a rig's most extreme alert status). Williams is a cool voice of reason counseling a heedless executive called Vidrine (John Malkovich) against letting blind confidence substitute for methodology, but it's a larger-than-life figure known as Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, owning the screen) who makes the case most forcefully for level-headed caution. Mr. Jimmy's advisements are barely registered: After all, the rig has fallen 43 days behind schedule, and there's oil to be extracted and sold.

But in any showdown between human arrogance and the forces of nature, it's physics rather than fantasy that wins. We know that the rig is doomed to fireball status; it's the job of director Peter Berg to ensure that getting to that point is as suspenseful as possible, and he accomplishes this, together with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. The film interleaves humor and colorful character moments with a growing sense of unease. There are a few stereotypes along the way -- Andrea, the tough, mechanically-minded Latina (Gina Rodriguez), is almost defined by her fixation on her car, while the BP bosses are little more than pasteboard villains. Other secondary characters are similarly defined in simple terms. But for epic disaster movie, this is the best feature to hit the screens in a while.

The film staggers a little toward the end, when corniness creeps in; still later, the film takes on the feeling of a memorial, which is fitting but which also feels awkwardly added on, given the adventure movie tenor of what has come before. Overall, the film offers a lesson about respecting the realities of the world while keeping tastefully away from mere exploitation.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.