Based on the real life event, Deepwater Horizon follows the crew of the rig on the days before the catastrophe. Concentrating mainly on Engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) we get a front row seat as the day to day maintenance of the vessel is placed secondary to the corporate considerations of BP (represented here by Malkovich’s manipulative Donald Vidrine), as well as a number of shortcuts in the drilling of the well. It’s an anatomy for disaster, eventually leading to a massive fire on the rig and the largest oil spill in American history.
A surprisingly thin story from a narrative perspective, Deepwater Horizon, just does what it needs to. It sets up the characters, gives the audience enough ties to the main characters so they are invested in them, and lays the ground work for the disaster to follow. What it does do spectacularly well is to give a sense of scale to the rig itself and the industrial process it is at the heart of. The vessel of the Deepwater Horizon herself is vast and complex bit of machinery, dwarfing it’s crew. That this giant is needed to drill at such phenomenal depths, and to try and tame the horrendous pressures that oil has been kept under for millions of years, is made readily apparent. As Wahlberg’s character is so prompt to remind us, there are ornery dinosaurs down there.
Hence when large chunks of this machinery are hurled past the characters, it is obvious how catastrophically wrong everything has gone. Even before it all catches alight.
Deepwater Horizon captures the apocalyptic tone of a Roland Emmerich disaster film, but with a deeper emotional attachment to this charming set of characters. That bond is the work of a charismatic cast, doing their all with what the small amount of development the characters are given, and speaks volumes for their screen presence. It may also be that (unlike the majority of Emmerich’s work) this is a true story, as the photos of the real life victims in the end credit poignantly remind us.
There is a certain amount of idolizing blue-collar heroics here, but Deepwater Horizon strength is placing the audience at the centre of things. At times it milks that in a far more sentimental way than it strictly needs to, but when it focuses on the main event, it is pulse quickening stuff with an authenticity that is hard to fathom.