“Something that big should have been made by God.”
The new film Deepwater Horizon has a character deliver that dialogue from the cockpit of a helicopter en route to the massive offshore oil rig, which we all know blew out and exploded 43 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010. It underscores the film’s theme of hubris, of men who thought they could “tame dinosaurs” and ultimately flew too close to the sun. But it also could have been an apt description of the film itself, of the notion that destruction so mammoth could be — or even should be — captured in a major motion picture.
In the real world, the result of the Deepwater blowout was the most massive environmental catastrophe in American history. Over the following 87 days, the uncapped Macondo Prospect well the rig had drilled gushed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, much of which eventually washed ashore across all five Gulf Coast states. The effects on fish, shrimp, birds, dolphins, sea turtles and, of course, people are still being felt to this day.
That monumental tragedy still so fresh in so many people’s minds, is it too soon to be exploited as fodder for a big-budget, effects-driven Hollywood blockbuster — one starring Marky Mark Wahlberg, at that? Yes, it probably is. Yet director Peter Berg makes it work by focusing on the 126 workers aboard the platform that night, 11 of whom perished in the accident. Watching the chaos unfold, what strikes one as remarkable is that anyone made it off alive.
Berg takes his time setting the scene and building toward the disaster, patiently drawing the viewer in to what amounts to a foreign world that very few ever get a chance to see. We might have only vague notions of the actual tasks the rig workers perform routinely, but little exposition is wasted attempting to explain any of the technical jargon. You just have to let it wash over you and take for granted that all the talk of blowout preventers, of cement tests and negative pressure tests, of drill pipes and kill pipes and bladder effects, all have something to do with unleashing the monster we all know is coming to devour them.
The film instead allows viewers to connect by grounding the story in what ultimately seems like a fairly typical workplace. You have your prickly types and your goof-offs, your self-aggrandizing awards rituals and opportunities to eat cake, your routine sexual harassment, your complaints about bosses, about how the computers are shit and the bathrooms don’t work.
And you have your inevitable petty disputes between clients and contractors. In this case, a group of BP execs, led by Don Vidrine (John Malkovich), have come out to tighten the screws for Transocean manager James “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), whose crew is 43 days late and $53 million over budget in drilling the well. Dripping with villainous menace, Malkovich’s Vidrine tells Harrell and crew through a thick Cajun drawl that they are “scared as cats” and that the time has come to just stop already with the pointless testing and just get the well ready to pump. Sporting a fierce walrus moustache and the countenance of a take-no-shit Southern gentleman, Jimmy stands up for the safety of his men, but ultimately is overruled by the guys with the money. (The real-life Vidrine would later be charged with manslaughter, but ultimately sentenced earlier this year to just 10 months of probation on a misdemeanor pollution charge.)
The film does its own bit of screw-tightening, building the dramatic tension along with the physical pressure in the well, until the break finally comes. In rapid succession, a failed pressure test leads seawater then mud then oil and finally explosive gas to come rocketing up through the rig, which is consumed in a massive fireball, leaving in its wake one of the most spectacular towering infernos ever caught on celluloid. From that point on, we see virtually everything through the eyes of chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg), who exudes rugged, blue-collar gravitas as he uses every ounce of his wits, strength and guile both to save his fellow crew members and to get himself back home to his wife (Kate Hudson, daughter of Russell’s longtime partner Goldie Hawn) and young daughter.
The roughly 40-minute stretch covering the disaster itself is, of course, why the film was made and it’s well worth the price of admission alone. To choreograph such elaborate chaos, the literal unleashing of hell on earth, in ways that manage both to serve as an all-out assault on the senses and to be just magnificently beautiful was a monumental undertaking. Despite tremendous challenges, Berg and company stick the landing. Do not be surprised if cinematographer Enrique Chediak, visual effects supervisor Craig Hammack, production designer Chris Seagers, editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr. and possibly even Berg himself take home a proverbial boatload of Academy Awards next year.
For sure, the film has its flaws. Neither of the female co-stars (Hudson and Gina Rodriguez as navigator Andrea Fleytas) are particularly well-served and it fails the Bechdel test miserably. Given how well we all know the rig’s eventual fate, the early scenes probably could have made do with just one or two ominous portents of foreshadowing, rather than the seven or eight we actually get. But Deepwater Horizon nonetheless stands as a major triumph of cinematic craft and one that deserves your attention.