Deepwater Horizon suffers from Multiple Film Disorder. There are two films struggling for dominance. There’s a corporate exposé, detailing the greed and incompetence that led to the one of the largest environmental disasters in history, and the deaths of 11 men. And there’s a bog-standard disaster film, detailing everyday heroics against a backdrop of explosions and towering infernos. Which one wins the battle for Deepwater Horizon’s soul? Neither, as it turns out.
The Deepwater Horizon was the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit that, in April 2010, exploded and sunk; the same explosion resulted in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Peter Berg’s film depicts the hours leading up to the explosion, the attempts of the crew to evacuate the rig, and the immediate aftermath.
Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, the Horizon’s Chief Electronics Technician. Williams is the type of character Wahlberg excels at: blue collar, earthy charm, good in a crisis. Wahlberg is joined by Kurt Russell, as ornery rig supervisor “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell; and John Malkovich, who plays BP executive Donald Vidrine, and whose southern accent keeps slipping.
With the exception of Williams’ breakfast with his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter, which feels stagey and Hollywoodised, Deepwater Horizon’s early scenes have an almost documentary quality. Berg’s camera hovers outside conversations and on the edges of rooms, like a unobtrusive video journalist. The cast give authentic, believable performances (even if Malkovich’s accent keeps slipping).
We learn, when Williams and Harrell arrive on the rig, that the cement that’s been poured around the drill hasn’t been tested. And it really should have been, as compromised cement can lead to, say, a giant explosion and oil spill. The BP executives aren’t bothered, though; they just want to start pumping all that lovely, lovely oil. Tempers flair, and Vidrine eventually sinks to bullying and intimidation to start the pumping. Even if this weren’t based on the most widely publicised oil spill ever, we could see where this is going.
When the inevitable happens, Deepwater Horizon descends into a rather perfunctory disaster film. Berg constructs the chaos with skill (the same skill he displayed in uneven superhero film Hancock and jingoistic Lone Survivor), as bodies are sent flying, metal comes crashing down, and everything burns. It’s somewhat impressive, but nothing we haven’t seen before. And, in light of the subtle and engaging opening scenes, it feels like one film has been unceremoniously shoved into the middle of another.
There’s the sense that Berg and the producers are trying to court as wide an audience as possible. Here’s a quasi-documentary for the political types, the people who want to get angry at corporate avarice and the needless loss of life. And here’s a loud, fiery action film for those who just want to see explosions, and Mark Wahlberg save everyone.
The time, money, effort, and obvious skill that went into Deepwater Horizon might have been better directed, if not into an out-and-out documentary (usually, but erroneously, thought of box office poison), then at least something more inquisitive, more far reaching, more inflammatory. Unfortunately, the kind of films that Berg makes, and has made here, are none of those things. The closing title card tells us that the BP executives responsible for the disaster were indicted for manslaughter, but never actually convicted. That piece of information is more affecting than anything that Berg put onto the screen.