Deepwater Horizon is the most entertaining Hollywood disaster movie in years. I’m sorry — is that a terrible thing to say? Peter Berg’s film is based on the true story of the BP-leased, Transocean-owned deepwater drilling rig that in 2010 exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 souls and causing an environmental catastrophe that devastated the region. Berg brings the requisite gravity to this real-life tragedy, but his movie truly comes alive when things go boom, when the mud and oil start spraying and the bodies start flying.
Like most disaster flicks, Deepwater Horizon kicks off with a series of pointed omens as the crew prepares to go back out to sea after time spent at home. First, the Coke can that chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is using to show his daughter how the rig works gets punctured, spewing foam all over the kitchen; elsewhere, deputy dynamic positioning officer Andrea Fleytas’ (Gina Rodriguez) Mustang won’t start as she heads to work. Meanwhile, superstitious crew manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), who essentially runs the Deepwater Horizon, admonishes a visiting BP executive for wearing a magenta tie. It's the same color as an alarm on a rig that, you see, “is as bad as it gets.” Something tells me this information will become pertinent later on.
Still, the sure-handed way that Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand deploy such bits of exposition is crucial to the film’s overall effect. The Deepwater Horizon, we come to understand, doesn’t pump oil — it merely digs holes looking for it, then moves on. It’s currently drilling into a well named Macondo, 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. And the rig is a massive, complicated, and aging beast riddled with problems, including malfunctioning toilets and air conditioners. The BP executives, eager to get moving after falling 43 days behind schedule and $53 million over budget, don’t want to fix anything, and they don’t mind cutting corners. Among their key mistakes: sending the team that’s supposed to test the cement used to plug up the Macondo well home early. BP manager Don Vidrine (John Malkovich, at his slithery best) drawls, “We ahh confedehnt in da integriteh of ouh cee-ment job” with a chuckle. Russell’s Mr. Jimmy isn’t convinced. “I worry about the rig. My crew lives in it. You just rent it.” You tell ‘em, Kurt.
Berg tightens the screws beautifully — following, in what appears to be excruciating detail, the tests the crew runs on the closed-off well to make sure it’s properly sealed. (I have no idea how accurate all this stuff is, but it sure sounds authentic, and in the movies that’s most of the battle.) Mr. Jimmy is convinced things aren’t right, while Vidrine (boo, hiss) smugly insists that all is fine and that it’s time to move. Russell is perfectly cast as the no-bullshit veteran who wants to make sure the job is done right — a fatherly stud.
Wahlberg plays to his strengths as the smartest guy in the room who just happens to look dumb. There's an inherent sadism in what the movie’s doing here, but it’s of the good, Hitchcockian kind: We’re on the side of our working-class heroes, underestimated professionals who know how the job needs to be done, so we want to see them proven right — which means that we’re secretly wishing for everything to go wrong. And, of course, it does.
It’s a hell of a thing when it all finally goes to hell. Hurricanes of guck blast the rig’s windows as the crew gets knocked around like rag dolls. Outside, debris falls from the skies, and dying, mud-caked flocks of birds invade nearby ships like something out of the Bible. Berg orchestrates all this chaos with more than a little cinematic glee; this is the spectacle, after all, that we’ve come to see, and oh my, does he indulge it. After the initial blasts, the hubbub of the early scenes gives way to an eerie, post-apocalyptic climate, as our heroes — some wounded, some separated from the others — do their damnedest to get everyone off the burning, dying rig.
It’s gripping, and even quite beautiful — all the orange mists of gas and the flailing flashlight beams and the shards of broken glass achieve a weird, almost abstract quality. Near the end, when we see the whole of the Deepwater Horizon burning out at sea while the survivors kneel to pray on the deck of a rescue ship, the vision approaches the surreal.
Berg clearly wants to honor the real men and women. He bookends the drama with sights and sounds from the actual hearings looking into the tragedy, and the film gathers in solemnity as it nears the finale. But as he proved with his Afghan war movie Lone Survivor — and as he probably will again with his upcoming Boston Marathon bombing epic, Patriots Day, also starring Wahlberg — Berg also can’t help but try and entertain the crap out of his audience. That can lead to a troubling disconnect: In Lone Survivor, the cavalcade of horrors sometimes took on an exploitative quality. But here, he keeps things simple, tight, and taut, and does right by the folks who were there for the real thing. He’s made them the heroes of a genuinely exciting action movie.