Silver Screen: Deepwater Horizon ***1/2
Deepwater Horizon gets off to a shaky start in an early scene when the basic mechanics of a deepwater drilling rig are explained by an adorable gradeschooler preparing for a class presentation. She even has a visual aid with a shaken-up can of soda that ominously gushes over. (Foreshadowing!)
That precocious little agent of exposition (played by young Stella Allen) is the daughter of rig engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), preparing to speak to her class about What My Daddy Does at Work. For a moment here it appears that Berg is setting up a pathos-laden family drama set against the backdrop of a real-life catastrophe.
But Berg’s take on the Deepwater disaster turns out to be most adept when immersed in the technical details. Working from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, adapting a journalistic account of the events, Berg turns in a compelling film that plays like a slick docudrama until the special effects start flying, when it achieves the momentum of a thriller. It’s a terrific balance of procedural detail and survival drama, and when it does finally get around to those syrupy scenes of weepy family reunions, they’re well-earned.
The tight narrative takes place over a single day, when Williams and some coworkers, including Andrea Fleytas (Jane the Virgin’s wonderful Gina Rodriguez) and their flinty, old-school boss “Mister Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), board a chopper to start a three-week stint aboard the massive rig.
Jimmy is fuming upon arrival. The troublesome well the crew is forty-three days late setting up has been all but declared fit for use by the condescending British Petroleum execs (led by John Malkovich, crushing a Cajun accent, and including several of the older castmembers from Berg’s great TV show, Friday Night Lights). Jimmy is convinced they haven’t conducted the necessary tests to ensure the well’s integrity, and he’s unconvinced when his own tests yield ambiguous results.
Of course, we know what tragedy lurks around the corner. Berg leans into the irony of hindsight a bit, including a scene where the smarmy BP boys present the crew with a safety award. Yet the knowledge of what is to come doesn’t entirely define Deepwater Horizon. The crisp but unhurried presentation of life and work aboard the oil rig is fascinating in and of itself. The film takes time to distinguish various roles aboard the ship, from the roughnecks (led by Dylan O’Brien) to the drilling-shack techs (including ace character actor Ethan Suplee) to the pilot house where Andrea and company try to keep the boat steady.
Among the facts you may not have known about the Deepwater Horizon: It was an independent rig working under contract to BP. Despite its gargantuan size, enough to house more than one-hundred workers, it’s not anchored to the seafloor, but rather is an enormous boat that travels from project to project.
Among the facts you pretty much certainly knew about Deepwater Horizon: It blew up.
Berg nicely orchestrates the escalating tension as the pipeline situation goes from calamitous to panic-worthy to horrorshow. Berg is prone to a similar brand of military fetishism and massive-scale rubbernecking as Michael Bay, but he’s at the very least a thinking man’s Bay. Because he does such a good job establishing the machinations on the oil rig, the cascade of malfunctions is clearly articulated, not just a series of random explosions. The escape scene, while still prone to Hollywood conventions and populated with rugged action stars, feels appropriately somber. It hews much closer to tribute than exploitation.
Slightly more complicated is the film’s commentary on the subsequent environmental fallout. The months-long oil spill, resulting in more than one-hundred-million gallons of crude leaking into the ocean, gets a two-sentence mention during an epilogue of newsreel footage. An earlier scene featuring a frantic, oil-slicked seabird also nods to the destruction wrought upon the wildlife and their nearby habitats, but it feels a bit perfunctory.
That said, Deepwater Horizon succeeds in large part thanks to its confined timeline, and the cleanup effort is not just inherently difficult to dramatize, it’s essentially a story unto itself. That the film is able to eloquently explain the cause of the disaster— and point fingers at the human greed behind it— without addressing the environmental consequences is more an acknowledgement of the limitations of a feature-length film than a failing.
Deepwater Horizon would make an excellent double bill with last month’s Sully. They’re both inherently American odes to the heroism of workers on the frontline of capitalism, each barbed with a distrust of the money men at the top. But in their specificity, each illuminates humanity behind the ideology.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.