Film Review: Deepwater Horizon

Adrenalized account of 2010 oilrig explosion works best as an effects-laden disaster pic, less well as human drama.
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This muscular staging of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster wins points for capturing the mayhem that unfolded as the oilrig fell to pieces after a series of explosions. Told from the point-of-view of the workers involved, the movie is short on analysis and, surprisingly, suspense. Viewers curious about an accident still affecting the Gulf Coast will provide a strong enough opening.

Working from a New York Times article, screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand do not fool around much with setting or context. Their approach is to humanize a half-dozen characters until the accident occurs, then let the special effects take over.

Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) has a loving wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), and an adorable daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen), but otherwise is all business. Gruff Jim Harrell (Kurt Russell), "Mr. Jimmy" as everyone calls him, cares for his men and is a hard worker. Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) is a hard worker and loves machinery. In fact, everyone works hard except for BP management, personified here by all-purpose villain Don Vidrine (John Malkovich).

The screenwriters' foreshadowing is relentless. Willliams' daughter's school project—using a can of Coke to demonstrate how an oilrig works—explodes. A bird strikes the helicopter bringing crew members to the rig. Once there, the phones don't work and the computers crash. Safety subcontractors leave without completing their tests.

Director Peter Berg keeps the pacing brisk. Characters stride down corridors conducting breakneck conversations filled with jargon and half-intelligible banter. Lights flash on consoles, underwater cameras find mud inside pipes and gas seeping up from the ocean floor. Vidrine wants to drill for oil, Harrell wants to conduct more tests. Bad decisions are made, and the rig, actually a semisubmersible platform with propellers, is in such poor condition that there is little margin for error.

Roughly halfway through Deepwater Horizon, Berg switches to disaster mode. Fiery explosions, crumbling cranes, bodies flung through walls: one crisis after another, each one loud and deadly.

Some workers perform heroically, some are too stunned to help. The Coast Guard plays a crucial role, as does Williams, who volunteers for reckless missions and pulls wounded colleagues up stairwells to lifeboats.

As fireballs rain down on the largely anonymous crew, the movie's narrow focus starts to work against it. Hudson has to stand in for every worried family member ashore. Malkovich has to represent the cut corners, missing safety equipment, and relentless demand for profit by BP executives. And Wahlberg becomes the hero who saves the day.

If the action were better, the movie's insular approach might not be so bothersome. But Berg does a poor job laying out the geography of the rig, so it's never quite clear where the workers are going or what they are trying to do. There's little sense of the disaster escalating, just louder explosions.

On the plus side, Russell turns in another steady performance as the immensely likable Harrell. Hudson is surprisingly effective in a small role. And while Berg may not be much of a stylist, he delivers a steady, workmanlike account of the story.

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