Hope is not a Tactic
Deepwater Horizon is a dramatic thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg. It's based on the true story of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history which was highly publicised for its human causalities and environmental damage. The film follows electronics engineer Mike Williams (Wahlberg), who starts his 3 week-long rotation aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, off the coast of Louisiana. His superior James "Jimmy" Harrel, played by Kurt Russell, also begins his rotation, when they both discover that officials from oil company British Petroleum (BP) have been negligent in overseeing the pouring of cement to stabilise the oil well’s foundations. One of these officials is the shifty Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich, whose rashness sets the wheels of risk in motion. The actions and decisions of these characters all build up quickly to the obvious meat of the film, the disaster itself.
Director Peter Berg is best known for his previous film Lone Survivor, which also starred Wahlberg. The duo are also involved in the upcoming Patriots Day, which is also based on a true event, and has so far received strong critics’ reviews. I personally enjoyed Lone Survivor and its gritty, focused direction, thus there was much excitement as I watched Deepwater Horizon in hopes of another strong showing from Berg.
There are many good things to say about Deepwater Horizon. The film is surprisingly well-made, with great acting, visual effects and a solid storyline that puts the film is a nice, neatly tied package. Though I am far from qualified to say if the technical content in the film is accurate, it must be said that a good effort was made to get the average movie-goer to understand the moving parts and procedures on the oil rig and how, one-by-one, they started to go wrong. The dialogue is realistic for the most part and the action is shot incredibly well. Every scene, with a few exceptions, felt authentic and served to either move the story along, or help the viewer understand the severity and impact of the disaster.
A Profound Glimpse into Disaster
The main star of Deepwater Horizon has to be Peter Berg and his directing style. He’s to be commended for how real he makes every inch of the film look, as even the fiery, explosive scenes are big but never over-the-top. The actual oil rig that was built for the film (the most expensive in film history, according to IMdB) is an incredible showcase of practical effects. That said, many scenes in the film are given the CGI treatment so we can see exactly what is happening in the ocean or within the rig itself. These scenes are animated well, though not necessarily accurately, and provide the tension of impending danger that everyone would expect. The dialogue on the rig is short and quick, legitimately sounding like how normal people would talk in real life, draping yet another layer of realistic quality over the film.
This makes the many characters we meet very believable, although most are unfortunately forgettable. Mark Wahlberg again puts in a solid performance as our protagonist, while Kurt Russell’s heavy accent from Hell of High Water has somewhat waned into a hearable slur that still allows you to relate to his character and his care over the rig. That said, the standout performer was John Malkovich’s Vidrine, with his slimy, patronising businessman persona clearly telling you he’s the so-called villain of the film, but still adding a dimension that enables the viewer to understand why he does what he does.
The film is paced well, with the aforementioned tension building up to the actual disaster executed remarkably, and even more so by a great scene involving a conversation between Wahlberg and Malkovich’s characters. Once the mud hits the fan, the film turns into a more action-packed, VFX-heavy direction. And it is here that the film shines the brightest, as I was fully immersed despite knowing exactly what happens in the end. The pace rarely falters as it keeps you engaged in a desperate struggle of rescue and survival, as the horror of these real-life people being on board a money-making machine turned death trap is conveyed beautifully but in the most terrifying of ways on screen. Yet, undercutting all of this is a surprising air of hope for the future and respect for the people involved that fell victim to this tragedy, a feat that could have easily felt heavy-handed, but didn’t in the hands of Berg and screenwriters like Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand.
Almost Beyond the Horizon
As for flaws, there are a few that prevent Deepwater Horizon from being an overall masterpiece. Although Wahlberg himself puts in a good performance and has a great scene with Malkovich, we don’t really get the feeling that he is ever in any sort of danger, which in a way made me feel more safe and certain than I would’ve liked throughout the film. We see him with his family in order for us to care more for the character of Mike Williams, but in the end this doesn’t quite achieve that, although it does give an opportunity for an explanation about how the oil rig works, as well as an emotional payoff in the end, which, to be fair, is effective. Speaking about his family, Kate Hudson plays the wife of Mike Williams, and she plays it fairly well. However the film sometimes cuts back and forth between the disaster and her worrying about her husband at home, which I can’t say was unnecessary, but did distract from the main event, and this is where the film lost steam where it could have continued its momentum.
Deepwater Horizon is a well-directed film with well-executed action set-pieces, good special effects and a respectable tribute to the heroes of a terrible disaster. It has few but noticeable flaws, which its strengths definitely make up for. If you are a fan of Peter Berg or Mark Wahlberg, or you enjoy watching films about true events and acts of heroism, then watching Deepwater Horizon is recommended. It doesn’t quite have an easily interpretable message as it’s more of a documentary being given the Hollywood treatment, but in the end it’s another solid piece of work from the Berg-Wahlberg pairing. And with solid feedback coming from Patriots Day, one can’t help but wonder if this duo can join the ranks of Washington and Lee, Tarantino and Jackson as well as Scorsese and DiCaprio in the hall of fame of legendary actor-director pairings.
Overall Score: 7.9/10