The Visceral and Visual Pleasures of Deepwater Horizon

For a film anchored by thinly drawn characters and straw men antagonists in its first act, Deepwater Horizon is surprisingly one of the few films that make it seem like none of its characters are safe from being brutally eliminated in the narrative. Shrapnel flies through mud storms without warning, an emergency life raft gets pummeled by shooting flames, Mark Wahlberg can’t avoid catching on fire, and Kurt Russell has a particularly nasty shower. Director Peter Berg brings his signature gritty style from The Kingdom and Hancock to this true story adaptation, while also doing his best Michael Bay ventriloquist act, delivering an experience that is truly amazing, visceral, and pummeling, and at the same time sidelining almost everything else related to the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill.

Deepwater Horizon has a simple and straightforward narrative that most are familiar with: it follows the April 2010 explosion of the "Deepwater Horizon" oil rig, which was a result of the negligence and recklessness of BP, and killed eleven of the rig’s 126 crew members. Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, one of the chief electricians on the rig, Russell plays Jimmy Harrell, the authority on the rig’s security, and John Malkovich chews the scenery as Vidrine, an employee of BP who wants to get the rig running despite Harrell's safety concerns. All the actors are pushed through the rigors of the competent script from Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play, World War Z) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin), which manages to deftly handle the technical exposition of the setting, while at the same time cutting back to Williams’ wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) a few too many times.

If the real pleasure of watching Deepwater Horizon comes from its visual spectacle, how good is the disaster when it strikes? The audience I was with shouted and screamed at different points in the film from pure shock and surprise; the editing by Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming and the visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic work together to create the feeling of being on the oil rig as it is consumed in flames. The sound design by Harry Cohen is immersive and blistering; all of these technical elements create the feeling that anything is possible in this dangerous world and all bets are off. The geography of the rig is never fully coherent, but Berg is able to balance the chaos by directing our attention to particular challenges that emerge with every step of the crew’s way. But there's a seat-of-the-pants feel with which Carnahan and Sand throw in obstacle after obstacle into the mix as the disaster unfolds; instead of stating the crisis goals of the crew at the outset, we suddenly get mission objectives from Harrell, almost as if they wanted to add as much tension as they could to the situation. While those objectives keep us in the nail-biting, intense world that Berg has created, it doesn't feel as organic as it should.

While Berg excels in the disaster aspect of the story, it seems to consume everything else around it. The BP oil spill was not just a corporate failure from negligence, but also an environmental disaster, a political disaster, and a regulatory crisis. Those dimensions of the narrative are alluded to in the film’s coda but are not illustrated through its events. This film is no Syriana because of its personal approach to the story, but it feels disingenuous to depict a clear political story like this one without much emphasis on that angle itself. Berg also undermines the film’s pure visual simplicity by shoehorning excess sentiment as he honors the real deceased crew members of Deepwater Horizon and then reaches out all too briefly to the political narrative in a way that feels wasted. If this becomes the sole film produced on the BP oil spill, should it be a film about the individual and not about the system as a whole?