Directed by Peter Berg
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand
Starring: Mark Walberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson
Runtime: 107 minutes
On April 20th 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded causing the largest oil disaster (calling it a spill feels like it minimizes the event. You spill your drink, not 4.9 billion barrels of oil) in U.S. history. The well continued to spew crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days until it was plugged on July 15, 2010, though it may have still been leaking as late as 2012. So now, we get a feature film based on the events, Deepwater Horizon and the question begs to be asked: did we need a fictionalized retelling of these horrific events? After all, the Exxon Valdez disaster only rated an HBO movie in 1992 and for a long time, that was the largest one. Apparently, director Peter Berg and his writers decided that it was time to lionize the surviving crew members and vilify the BP oil executives that apparently pushed to ignore standard safety protocols because the well was behind schedule.
The screenplay, by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, from a story by the latter based on a news article “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours” by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul, sets up the three people they want us to consider heroes right away: Mike Williams (Mark Walberg), something of a systems engineer but his role is vague at best; Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), the woman who developed the flotillas or rotors or something that has made the rig into a boat as opposed to a fixed structure (yet she’s not in charge, she now just pilots it) and Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the man in charge of the rig. We also get the villain of the piece very quickly. He is Vidrine (John Malkovich), a BP executive that just wants the well capped and Deepwater Horizon to move on to another speculation spot so a collection rig can start using the well and pumping oil, with no regard for protocol or safety if it gets in the way of BP making money.
Everyone is written in an on-the-nose way that dispels any nuance right off the bat. These people aren’t people, no matter how much of their personal lives we see (and for most it isn’t much if any, but we do spend some time with Williams and his wife played by Kate Hudson, who is completely wasted in this picture). They are the ones who know what to do when it all goes down despite never even dreaming of this kind of situation, let alone being trained for it or having a similar experience on a different rig or well. Williams is the only one that we are supposed to connect with, because he’s seen on a couple of occasions talking with his wife via webcam on his computer. Williams and Harrell (referred to by everyone on the rig as Mr. Jimmy) keep ringing the bell of safety and procedure, singling them out as the ones who tried to avert everything.
While they very well may have been spouting all of the potential dangers of not having the pipe reinforced with concrete (a step skipped for the sake of time by Vidrine) or listing the myriad of machines that need to be repaired or replaced for the rig to be safe and operate efficiently, the truth is, as it later came out, that there was gross negligence across the board that led to this catastrophe. It’s tragic that anyone lost their lives during this event and it’s amazing that there were any survivors at all and it’s good that there was. Calling them heroes is extreme, though, considering that they presided over something that lost lives and impacted the health and livelihoods of thousands of people in the Gulf region and decimated wildlife in the area, the effects of which are still being felt.
Berg tries to distract from all that by making the film in two distinct parts: the first is the set-up and the second half is the action-packed tragedy. That’s not to say that he’s disrespecting any of the dead or polishing it to make it look like it wasn’t so bad. He tries to capture every gritty detail of the disaster as it unfolded and to that end, he succeeded. Unfortunately, in trying so hard to capture the reality of the situation, he sacrificed clarity. From the moment the packing mud explodes out of the pipe, everything becomes a jumble. He spent a lot of time trying to show the layout of the rig in the first half, presumably so we’d know where the action was taking place in the second half, unfortunately he did a horrible job of it and we never know where we are at any given moment in either half of the film. People go up and down stairs, around railings, in and out of rooms that are on unspecified decks and everything gets turned around, so when the chaos starts, it’s utterly baffling. It’s admirable, in a way, that he tried to capture the confusion once the oil starts gushing from the tower, but visual confusion is sloppy filmmaking, and Deepwater Horizon has that in spades.
Even the gruff charm of Russell’s Mr. Jimmy or the likeableness of Rodriguez’s Andrea can’t make up for the fact that this film just doesn’t work, though they do help mask the fact that Walberg is sleepwalking through every scene he’s not sharing with Hudson. He’s on autopilot here, not doing anything different or clever, as he is often able to do in better directorial hands.
Deepwater Horizon ends with footage of the real people and text telling us the outcome of what we just witnessed. This ends up being more interesting and begs another question, which is why didn’t they make a documentary instead? It would certainly have been more interesting and it may not have come off as being so one-sided. This is a trend in ‘based on a true story’ films, though it seems to be hitting more and more right now. Sully, Snowden and even Masterminds all end like this and the influx makes you aware that maybe the real stories would have been more interesting (that was the case already for Snowden, which was pointless after CitizenFour).
Deepwater Horizon offers very little in the way of explaining how such a thing like this could happen outside of corporate greed, which was a foregone conclusion. If all you’re looking for is some harrowing and terrifying scenes of catastrophe and misplaced hero worship, this film is for you. If you’re looking for something more meaningful and something that gets to the heart of this disaster, keep looking.