Based on the underreported human tragedy behind the infamous 2010 BP oil spill, ‘Deepwater Horizon’ is mainstream boom-boom entertainment with a heart done right. It’s thrilling spectacle just grounded enough to also work as drama and should be seen on only the biggest screen possible.
Mark Wahlberg stars as another of his patented working class heroes who somehow no one notices looks like an underpants model. In this case, he’s Mike Williams, one of the top grunts on an offshore oil rig reporting back to duty after a little time off with his wife (Kate Hudson) and child. He meets up with his buddy the super safety inspector (Kurt Russell) on the helicopter flight to the rig and both of them immediately recognize that something seems off. A safety team recently left without finishing their tasks, there are way too many repairs that need to be done, and the greedy white collar types on staff (perfectly led by John Malkovich) keep making wild demands that go against protocol. It’s clear to them that everyone is pushing their luck, but no one will listen. Sure enough, the rig strikes oil and is woefully unprepared to deal with the pressure. Soon the gooey black stuff starts exploding all over the rig and before you know it the oil catches fire. Then it’s a race to get as many people off the rig safely as possible.
The film plays better than expected because director Peter Berg makes the human drama work by keeping it lean. The audience is fed just the bare amount of information needed in simple and clever ways. (The physics of oil pressure are explained with a Coke can in a cute early scene). Characters are tough guy types stripped to the bone and played by just the right actors. Russell is a veteran of this type of role and classes things up as a walking exposition machine who explains how everything will go wrong. Wahlberg delivers one of his better recent performances by doing what he does best – playing a concerned, square-jawed nice guy who’s essentially a Bruce Springsteen fantasy. Best of all, John Malkovich chews up the scenery to hysterical effect as the greedy baddie with a Southern accent so over-the-top it’ll bring back fond memories of him in ‘Rounders’. The storytelling is lean and mean, but makes viewers care just enough for it to hurt when things get messy.
Unsurprisingly, the film really kicks off once the rig blows up and fire spews all over the screen. The action is vicious, dirty and real. Injuries will make viewers squirm, while Berg escalates tension relentlessly for almost an hour straight with little breathing room. The explosive imagery of the flaming and crumbling rig is massive enough for IMAX impact, but always feels very grounded and primal. It’s intense stuff, expertly crafted by Berg. The director can be wildly inconsistent, but when he’s on his game the guy knows how to go for the jugular with spectacle while still finding relatable human drama. ‘Deepwater Horizon’ is probably his best movie, and while it’s safe to say there will be more clunkers attributed to his name in the future, this thing proves that with the right material he can definitely deliver the goods.
Make no mistake, ‘Deepwater Horizon’ isn’t art. Aside from some sentimental honoring of the 11 souls lost in the actual incident at the top and tail of the picture, it doesn’t try to be. This is nothing more than an explosion-shilling disaster picture, made simply and directly to press all the right buttons for cheers and tears. It has some silly action movie moments that detract from reality, but not many. It works about as well as the genre can and proves that contemporary effects technology can make those tired tricks seem fresh.