The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was the worst in the history of the petroleum industry. Eleven people were killed and 210 million gallons of oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. So, hey, let’s make a movie about it with lots of explosions and Marky Mark! But Peter Berg’s movie is pure disaster porn, and as such it works well on almost every level.
Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, a high-tech mobile oil rig. The rig is run by Jimmy Harrell, known universally as “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), who’s exactly the kind of no-nonsense guy you’d want to have running your massive piece of equipment. These two are your honest employees, just trying to make a buck and do the right thing in a greedy, corporate world. But evil lurks in the shape of a few big bad BP oil executives, particularly Donald Vidrine (a hammy-as-ever John Malkovich), who are all about profit as their primary motive. They’re behind schedule, and if that means skipping a test or two, endangering a life or 11—well, so be it.
As history shows, it doesn’t turn out well. After overlooking a test, the systems around the pipe fail and oil geysers into the air, with fumes soon igniting the station. Cue huge explosions and opportunities for heroism and cowardice all round.
“Deepwater Horizon” is basically “Jurassic Park” without the dinosaurs. The rich unthinkingly build a massive monument to human ingenuity, nature finds a way to fight back, hero must work to get everyone out alive. With explosions.
Wahlberg is his usual capable self, not so much acting as grimacing his way through the movie with suitable everyman aplomb. Kurt Russell is naturalistic and likeable, while Malkovich proves that the Overenuciate, Overstate and Overact school of performance has its place—especially when he’s staggering across a rig covered in murky oil, blinded by his greed. And oil.
But the extraordinary thing is that this all happened just six years ago. We’re fed images of tragic heroism as the music swells and an American flag flutters into shot, and sure, it feels good. But is it, perhaps, too soon? Too opportunistic?
To make an audience care, a film needs strong characters—and the characters of “Deepwater Horizon,” particularly those of Wahlberg and Russell, achieve this.
But little emphasis is given to the deeper, more enduring cost of the disaster. The cost we’re shown is human, not environmental—and it lessens the significance of the whole tragedy. Go for the explosions, sure. Go for Marky Mark. But afterwards, go save a dolphin, you ass. Adam White
Directed by Peter Berg. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich. Category IIA.
108 minutes. Opened Sep 29.