The immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon unfolded like a grim joke. As politicians and the media assigned blame, millions of oil barrels kept dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Blame was more important than the unfathomable environmental toll of an exploding oil rig. But Deepwater Horizon is not about that grim joke, or assigning blame. Instead, director Peter Berg follows the several skilled laborers on that fateful day. The drama unfolds with a mix of commonsense arguments and engineering jargon, at least until all hell breaks loose, and I mean the word “hell” almost literally. Berg and his technical team envision the explosion as a ceaseless inferno, one that creates an affecting mix of psychological/physical damage in those who survive it.
Berg’s camera begins on the bottom of the ocean, where we see the dangerous pressure just below the surface floor. Berg returns to this imagery and the nearby drills as a constant reminder of the disaster that awaits the oil workers. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is an electrical expert, and he arrives via helicopter alongside his colleague Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), who navigates the free-floating platform.
Mike and Andrea barely on Deepwater Horizon before they face countless technical problems with the rig. Many systems are malfunctioning or not working at all, but that doesn’t matter since it gets in the way of BP’s bottom line. Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) is in charge of all safety issues, so naturally he butts heads with Vidrine (John Malkovich), BP’s man on the ground. The big debate is whether to start drilling or perform safety test first. After two tests prove inconclusive, Vidrine has his way, and an otherwise dangerous accident quickly becomes a full-on disaster.
Berg is a natural filmmaker, with a ruthlessly compelling sense of plot, storytelling, and camera placement. No matter whether he’s directing Lone Survivor or an episode of television, his work has a sense of logic and implacability so even a logical endpoint arrives with a sense of surprise. That’s true for Deepwater Horizon, as he does the bare minimum to define his characters and how they relate to each other.
That is not to say the film is difficult to follow; in fact, it’s the opposite because Berg and his screenwriters trust we can follow along from the context clues. The opening scenes admittedly rely on formula: Mike loves his wife (Kate Hudson) – of course he does – and of course Mike’s daughter uses a simple science experiment to explain to Mike and the audience (mostly the audience) just how an oil rig functions. Once the action shifts to the rig itself, however, there is a verisimilitude to these professionals that is uncommon for disaster films like this.
A big part of the film’s plausibility is the look of Deepwater Horizon itself. Berg’s crew created an 85 percent scale model of the rig, which gives his camera and actors a chance to really grapple with it as an awesome feat of engineering. We see every hunk of steel, glass, and rubber when they’re barely working – in all its function-before-form detail – so when it all starts to explode, the audience can intuit the danger and unpredictability.
Berg downplays the heroics of Mike, Mr. Jimmy, and the others. At first, they respond with standard troubleshooting procedures, and the transition to full-blown escape is wordless. If the first two thirds look like a documentary, then cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes the last third seem like a horror movie. No one has any sense of what might explode or fall on them, and only reprieve from billowing fireballs are pools of hopeless black. The action culminates with a scene of breathless, improvised escape. By downplaying the situation, the actors all the more convincing, as if these workers realize that accepting fear is the start of death. It’s an intense climax.
In the margins of Deepwater Horizon, there is nuance and compassion about all the characters, even the reprehensible ones. The Malkovich character and his thick bayou accent could have been the ostensible villain, but instead Berg sees him as another kind of professional who merely has a different bottom line than everyone else (title cards inform us that manslaughter charges were brought against him, but ultimately dropped). Rodriguez is a charmer on Jane the Virgin, and here she downplays her charisma in favor of hardened strength – although that has its limits.
The film’s biggest surprise, however, is from Mark Wahlberg. The final scenes of Deepwater Horizon show Mike at his corporeal and emotional limits. As an actor, Wahlberg rarely makes choices that make him seem so weak, yet he trusts the material and Berg enough so the film’s final scenes have emotional heft. If Berg could resist his maudlin attempts to beatify “the real heroes” with his memorializing prologue, then his film’s muscular power would speak for itself.