US Airways Flight 1549 and the BP Oil Spill are two of the most harrowing moments of the last decade. They are singular moments in American history where working class people overcame enormous odds to achieve the impossible. Both are inherently cinematic if for one small problem – the events surrounding them are slight, random humanity. It’s tough to build tension when normal people are doing their jobs, and doing them well. Don’t get me wrong, Deepwater Horizon is unquestionably a better film than Sully but it’s a problem that hovers over the film…while never overwhelming it.
The events of April 10, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana began harmlessly enough. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is an electronics engineer who’s about to depart on a 21-day trip to the Deepwater Horizon. He’s a family man, living with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter. His team includes his boss, Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell,) fellow engineer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and 124 other men and women. Their job is simple, secure an oil well for BP and get that sunbitch pumping sweet Texas Tea (it’s probably called something else on the Bayou.)
The execution is simple too. Director Peter Berg has never been a filmmaker with a pension to dive deep. He’s interested in process. Many of his movies (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) are interested in how these people work. No frills, just action. Honestly, it’s an admirable way to approach this material. These are complicated jobs with copious moving parts and Berg applies his pragmatism with a comprehensive, loving nature. He admires these men and women simply for their choice of profession.
From William’s arrival on the Deepwater Horizon its apparent things are not as they should be. The phones don’t work, rig comms are spotty and the Wi-Fi sucks. The crew is also joined by a few BP “company men” who’ve come to celebrate Mr. Jimmy’s immaculate safety record (oh…no.) All of this hand wringing is juxtaposed against a sinister crew of BP oilmen led by super villain Vidrine (John Malcovich) who wants to cut costs (via skimping on basic well testing) and pump barrels. Malcovich is a classic corporate foil who’s almost too ridiculous to be believable…except this actually happened.
When the rig goes up in flames is really when Deepwater Horizon finds its footing. Berg is one of the modern masters of action and when the blowout occurs he spares no expense. This is harrowing stuff, one of the most intense hours of filmmaking in recent years. In many ways Wahlberg was the perfect movie star to carry this. His cocky yet down to earth demeanor lends a layer of credibility to this terrifying ordeal that only he and a select few could sell.
And while Berg misses a golden opportunity to thoroughly debase the very industry he depicts it’s the very intensity and heroism of the below-the-line employees that he’s concerned about. Berg too often leans on cheesy shots of the American flag and other 3rd grade symbolism but it never overshadows the action. These people were put in harm’s way by the greed and manifest destiny that the oil companies possess and to Berg that is damning enough. This is his homage to those men and women and while it never quite hits hard enough emotionally the guise of that nefarious industry is undeniable.