‘Deepwater Horizon’ A Well Made Disaster Film


Disaster movies have been few these past years, although there are more than a few that turned into disasters unwillingly. However, Deepwater Horizon is a return to the format that really works. It is a good film that uses its special effects to good purpose. And that, I suppose, is what makes a disaster movie really good.

The film, based on a real disaster back in 2010, begins quietly. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is having breakfast with his wife (Kate Hudson) and family just before going off to do a tour on the big drilling ship. His coming aboard and greeting the crew provides a chance to see most of the characters to get an idea of who they are and what they do. Director Peter Berg uses every technique possible to make us aware of how the ship works and how the drilling is done, and does so in entertaining fashion.

The ship (it is a partially submerged vessel designed to drill under the Gulf of Mexico for oil) is itself a character, a vitally important one in the film. There is a spectacular establishing shot near the beginning as Wahlberg and a group of others come on to start their three-week work tour. The camera lingers lovingly over the great girders that support the gigantic structure, swoops in on all sorts of detail. It is awesome, but in a short time, it will just about all be gone.

The captain, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), is a crusty geezer who likes to run things by the book. Unfortunately, the British Petroleum executives love to cut corners. Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) is a slimy weasel in full Cajun mode who, in order to save some money, orders the captain, almost always called Mr. Jimmy, to ignore some key safety tests. Berg makes certain we understand the importance of the tests, as soon after the regulations are ignored, an oil blowout explodes, setting the whole ship on fire.

The rest of the film is a story of heroism and disaster as crew members trying to hold the ship together watch as the ship begins to fall apart. The navigator, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) is a tough woman, the only woman aboard, but we watch her begin to come apart as the deck around her actually does.

Berg is expert in gradually increasing the tension until things finally break. The first half of the film ensures that we know about the key players, know enough that we care whether they live or die, before putting them in danger. They, as well as many of those in smaller roles, are not simply meat for the grinder. We can’t simply dismiss those killed as mere unimportant extras, because Berg has given us the feeling that they are real people, that their lives are important, which helps drive the sense of tension needed in good drama.

Not everything works. By making the BP executives so villainous, particularly as represented by Malkovich, other problems fade. Actually, that part was to some degree made up, although BP certainly cared far less about the damage that might be done than its bottom line. The film ignored many of the reasons for the problem, focusing instead on the perfidy of the oil company.

The actual environmental damage was enormous, although the federal government did push for reparations, something possibly surprising in the current government environment. There are still repercussions in some Gulf Coast areas six years after the disaster.

Berg, along with writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Michael Sand, use a lot of oil-rig jargon, some of it incomprehensible. On the whole, they do help forge a picture of life on the rigs when things are working right. The cast was very good, although not much was really demanded of them. I liked Rodriguez, who did a lot with a role that emotionally was rather limited. Malkovich was, as usual, far over the top. Wahlberg, Hudson and Russell were very likeable, hardly a real stretch.

There have not been many disaster movies recently. If you like them, or if you really love action and special effects, you will enjoy this film.