Deepwater Horizon dramatizes the tragic events on board the titular oilrig back in April of 2010. The story is told mostly from the perspective of chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), who arrives on the rig to find the BP executives on board cutting corners in order to get back on schedule. With the well 43 days late, Mike and the rest of the crew are pressured into starting the drilling in spite of tests that indicate questionable conditions. When things go badly, Mike finds himself having to brave dangerous conditions to try and get people to safety.
The movie very clearly picks a side between corporations. Investigations into this incident pretty much led to the conclusion that there was a fault to go around. But the film largely places the blame on the BP executives on board the oilrig. The film, in crafting conventionally exciting cinema, does what conventionally exciting cinema does: it simplifies and exaggerates and generally tries to shape a narrative where there’s someone to root and someone to root against. This probably isn’t the most accurate or most rigorous depiction of the real-life disaster, but it’s a reasonably entertaining piece of cinema.
The film immediately structures itself as a struggle between working class stiffs on the crew of the rig and the oil company executives that only seem to care about money. To its credit, the film is smart enough to at least hint at the greater complicity of society at large in the creation of this problem. Early scenes don’t really say it out loud, but it points to a society that’s just hungry for oil, leading of course to the kind of demand that might cause a company to cut corners. Even before the film gets on the rig, it points to big oil and its proclivities as a villainous presence in the world as a whole.
It’s hard to argue against such a compelling point. But in the case of this one particular, there’s a little more nuance worth exploring. There is a greater conversation to be had here, but the film is more than satisfied simplifying the conflict down to an essential class divide. It isn’t really a bad decision: it streamlines this story and gives the audience concrete figures to root for and against. There’s just the nagging sense the film is missing the forest for the trees.
But yes, the film manages to be compelling in very simple ways. Every interaction on the rig is dripping with regional flavor. And when things start going wrong, the movie really captures the chaos and the danger of the situation. Director Peter Berg’s shaky handheld camera work really puts the audience in there, even if the framing is a little questionable at times. Excellent VFX work brings this whole thing to life. Mark Wahlberg seems a little out of place in Louisiana, but there are few Hollywood stars that convey blue-collar charm so effortlessly. Kurt Russell delivers an earthy, solid performance that beautifully contrasts with John Malkovich’s slithery, over-the-top villainous executive turn.
Deepwater Horizon could probably have done a little better reflecting true events, but one hardly goes to a mainstream movie for a history lesson. The film does reflect one vital aspect of the true story: people risking their lives to help other people. While it may exaggerate it through bombastic Hollywood style action, there is still merit in paying tribute to the heroism of the people who were there. One might just feel a little uneasy with the lack of nuance, and the film’s general unwillingness to go beneath the surface and find a richer vein of themes. It settles for the explosion.