Wait, what? “Based on a true story of real life heroes”? Wasn’t the Deepwater Horizon that total cluster-you-know-what of incompetence and corporate greed that killed 11 people and spilled an ungodly amount of oil all over the Gulf of Mexico, oil that is still killing seabirds and fish and cute baby dolphins to this day, six years later? Yes, it is. But this is not that story, at least not anymore than it can make some BP executives look wolfish and blundering (which they well deserve). This movie doesn’t even get into the oil spill itself — which went on for months and is still the biggest ever anywhere — or the cleanup and longterm impact of what turned out to be the worst US environmental disaster to date. Nope, this is just about the explosion on that offshore oil-drilling rig, in April 2010, and the immediate aftermath for those onboard, most of whom were just regular grunts who weren’t to blame for the disaster.
Ah, but were they heroes, or just poor schmoes unlucky enough to get caught up in catastrophe? Well, at least some of what we witness Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg: Daddy’s Home, Ted 2), do here in the hellscape that the rig became definitely qualifies as heroism of the “risking your life to save others” variety. And since director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) seems to have gone to great lengths to stick to the truth of the events — up to having survivors on-set as consultants — I’m gonna give the movie the benefit of the doubt and presume that the actions of other characters here that are selflessly heroic also really happened. (The very long December 2010 New York Times article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul that this is based on is available online, as is the 60 Minutes interview with the real Williams from May 16, 2010, less than a month after the events he lived through.)
Like Berg’s previous film, Lone Survivor — about a calamitous real-life military mission in Afghanistan — Deepwater Horizon is immensely intense and suspenseful even when you already know the general outcome. This is disaster filmmaking at its most gripping, and yet (also like Lone Survivor) there is nothing in the least bit exploitive or sensationalized about it. Horizon is exhausting — I was actually aching after my screening from being so tensed up during it — partly because it feels real, not exaggerated. Even though the vessel Deepwater Horizon has something of a science-fiction feel to it! This huge monster of a machine is a boat: it floats. You kinda can’t help but gawp at the awesomeness of it, and at what it does.
The script — by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, State of Play) and Matthew Sand — does an amazing job of explaining the deeply complex and technical work of a floating offshore oil prospecting and drilling rig in a cute, clever way: via Williams’ grade-school daughter and her explainer school report on her dad’s job. Using just a can of Coke and a straw, she helps us understand how the Horizon works… and how it can fail. Even if you’re horrified at the recklessness that led to the disaster (not to mention the recklessness of squeezing every last drop of oil out of the Earth in our era of global warming), it’s still amazing to consider. This is an action disaster movie that’s as much about science and engineering as it is about survival — and that’s incredibly cool — but Berg doesn’t fetishize that aspect of it, either.
No, what we see here is downright horrifying, and nothing else. The delicate machine that is the Horizon has not been well maintained: if there’s any humor in this movie at all, it is of the grim kind, as Williams chews out a BP exec (a hissworthy John Malkovich: Zoolander 2, Penguins of Madagascar) for how the company refuses to make time and money available for desperately needed maintenance. And it’s all in Wahlberg’s delightful fast-talking style, until he slows down for the conclusion: “money-hungry sons-a-bitches.” BP does not come off well here, as it shouldn’t. (It would have been nice for notorious Halliburton, also a contractor on the Horizon, to have gotten a smack, but I don’t recall them being mentioned at all. Transocean, the company that owned and operated the rig and leased it to BP, probably doesn’t get as much of a smack as it should: Kurt Russell’s [The Hateful Eight, Furious 7)] Transocean exec is pretty sympathetic.)
So, the Horizon is already overbudget and overschedule on its current mission, so there’s a rush to cap off the well so it can move on. The capping is done poorly, there are leaks of methane from the well, and **BOOM**!
It’s somewhat more complicated than that — though, again, the movie makes the cascade of failures that happen relatively easy to digest. And what comes after that is kinda like Titanic except with mud and fire instead of cold and ice, and with no romance (thank goodness no one felt a need to shove one in). Deepwater Horizon should be proud to be in its company: Titanic is an amazing film about (among other things) corporate greed and how it’s the little people who pay when big companies put profit about all else. (Malkovich’s BP exec gets onto a lifeboat while others are still onboard the Horizon, just like that White Star weasel in Titanic.)
It’s too soon to say — that well might still be leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP is still in business — but perhaps someday, in a hotter future, the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be seen as a powerful metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in the same way that the sinking of the Titanic is. If so, Peter Berg may have created a film that will literally be for the ages.