About halfway through Deepwater Horizon, viewers could be forgiven for briefly forgetting they’re watching a disaster movie. Everything is burning, people are staggering to safety, metal and glass are falling from the sky.
Basically, it looks like war.
As with his previous film, Lone Survivor, director Peter Berg tells a story of humans under assault. But the enemy is different this time: the worst oil spill disaster in US history, which happened only six years ago, just over 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
Evoking war is an effective tactic for Deepwater Horizon, which is more interested in reminding audiences about a recent disaster that dropped out of national headlines years ago than it is in indulging anyone’s love of disaster porn.
That isn’t to say the film’s explosions and catastrophes aren’t effective. You can practically feel the heat emanating from the screen. But though the pyrotechnics rival anything seen in a superhero movie, Deepwater Horizon takes the wisest route to disaster-movie catharsis, ratcheting the tension up to 11 before it all goes bust.
Don’t get oil rig mechanics? No sweat.
Deepwater Horizon starts with the obligatory introduction to some of the film’s main characters: Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), bidding his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter goodbye as he departs for a three-week stint on the titular oil rig, and his colleague Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) trying to kick-start her car before finally giving up and climbing onto her boyfriend’s motorcycle, en route to an airfield.
Once there, they and others — including the rig’s manager, Jimmy Harrell (an excellent, mustachioed Kurt Russell) — board a helicopter bound for the Deepwater Horizon rig, where they reunite with their fellow engineers and technicians.
The co-workers’ patter is lighthearted and fast-paced, full of the kind of jokes and digs engendered by the familiarity of a high-stakes workplace. So the movie stays engaging, even as the characters are sorting out why some safety precautions seem to have been skipped.
It’s safe to say that the percentage of the movie’s audience who understand the mechanics of oil rigs is pretty low (even if it’s likely to exceed that same percentage in the audience for any other movie right now). Deepwater Horizon wisely gives non-specialists a quick way in — via a school report from Mike’s daughter, which she demonstrates at third-grader scale with a small valve, a can of Coke, and a bear-shaped bottle of honey. The scene ends with the soda ominously erupting all over the kitchen table.
Deepwater Horizon finds the story within the headlines
So we know what’s coming right out of the gate, and when it comes it’s no surprise — this is a true story, after all. The trickiest part of using such recent history as the basis of a movie is that the filmmakers have to find the story lurking inside the situation.
The oil rig exploded. Eleven men lost their lives, and 17 more were injured. The fire raged for weeks. The BP site supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine (portrayed, respectively, by Brad Leland and a distractingly accented John Malkovich) were initially indicted on manslaughter charges, but prosecutors later backed away.
Yes, it’s a tragedy. But how does a filmmaker find the purpose in retelling it?
Berg tackles this question by coming at it from two different directions, and it works splendidly — and soberly.
First, Deepwater Horizon hinges on the same fear as any disaster movie: the feeling of something like divine vengeance being visited upon the humans. But, importantly, the force behind that destruction isn’t sentient. In a disaster movie, our onscreen avatars aren’t being attacked by robots; they’re under attack from machines that have no will of their own. The computers don’t rise up against us so much as human errors and foibles cause system failures.
In other words: It’s war, but our enemy is ourselves.
This fear of an apocalypse of our own making is unique to a technocratic age. You can see this in the suggestion that there’s not really anyone to blame for the Deepwater disaster. Even Vidrine, the closest thing the movie has to a villain, is in thrall to his bosses in London — who, you can almost guarantee, have no idea what’s going on thousands of miles away in the Gulf Coast.
You can see the fear in the faces of the men and women who nearly assault survivors, demanding news of their sons who worked on the rig. When this sort of catastrophe happens, people need someone to blame. You can’t assign malicious intent to a machine.
A similar theme surfaced recently in Clint Eastwood’s Sully, in which Captain Sullenberger’s competence is questioned when the airline — and, importantly, its insurance company — needs someone to blame for the near catastrophe. (Eerily enough, the chopper taking the engineers out to the rig runs into birds as it flies over the water, as does Sullenberger’s plane; a late Deepwater Horizon scene in which survivors are counted is a dark echo of the pilot’s realization that he didn’t lose a single passenger.)
In Sully, Sullenberger is eventually vindicated purely by showing that his own instincts, though they contradicted an approved course of action, turned out to be less faulty than the machine he was flying. In Deepwater Horizon, it’s more complicated: The engineers know something is off, but profit margins won’t let them follow their instincts, and catastrophe ensues.
Profit margins don’t have feelings and memories, but people do
The thing is, profit margins don’t have consciences. You can blame them, but they don’t care.
So Berg also makes the smart choice to let the film serve as a sort of memorial to the fallen, with images and names before the credits roll. People lost their lives, he says, and we can’t forget, because if we do, it will keep happening.
I’m ashamed to say that the incident had faded from my memory — so thoroughly that it took me a minute at the beginning of the film to remember if this was based on a true story. Once it came flooding back, I realized I’d never understood what happened in the first place. For families and citizens living near the Gulf Coast, it was — and continues to be — a daily reality.
And yet it’s unlikely that I’ll sit down and read a six-year-old news story to remember the events of a catastrophe like the one that happened on the Deepwater Horizon. So it’s important that filmmakers keep skillfully re-narrating history, crafting stories out of events and helping us see meaning in them.
Deepwater Horizon is a great watch. But it’s also a looming warning against cutting corners without regard for life — and one we can’t afford to forget.
Deepwater Horizon opens in theaters Friday, September 30.