TORONTO – When the mobile offshore drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon exploded into flames on April 20, 2010 it resulted in the loss of 11 lives and the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Five years later, BP, which contracted the Deepwater, would spend $18.7 billion in a settlement with the U.S. government and local and state municipalities. The disaster was epic, but also filled with heroic acts, which director Peter Berg chronicles in a movie appropriately named “Deepwater Horizon” which debuted Tuesday night at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
The face for the film is Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), an electronics technician who has just arrived for a three-week stint on the rig. He’s got a wonderful wife (a refreshing Kate Hudson) and young daughter (Stella Allen) waiting for him back home. You also clearly realize he’ll be the hero if and when the movie needs one. Mike, who works for the platform’s actual owners Transocean, is heading to Deepwater with a senior Transocean leader (Kurt Russell) and the person responsible for keeping the rig centered and stable, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).
When they arrive on Deepwater there is immediate tension because a group of employees are leaving without a certain job regarding the mud flow being completed (more on these complicated issues in a moment). That’s partially because of the presence of three BP executives (including one played by John Malkovich) who felt it was simply unnecessary (or that’s what we think they think). Already on board the rig just trying to move things along are drill worker Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien with more action moments than speaking lines) and drill supervisor Jason Anderson (Ethan Suplee delivering panic well).
The movie is based on a New York Times article written by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul that chronicled the real life drama that went on during the incident. An incident that consisted of two different events the movie has a hard time articulating. You can easily look up details of Deepwater’s demise. It was caused by an intricate set of events, but even through intricate CG and editing Berg has a hard time clarifying exactly what happened in the context of the picture. What you sort of understand is that at first the drill overflowed with excess mud and the crew couldn’t contain it. That eventually let natural gas or some sort of gases to be released into the air ducts and, in turn, cause a fiery explosion. From there the Deepwater’s fate was sealed completely in flames and it was a mad rush to get everybody off.
It must be noted that the highlight of the picture is Berg’s superb ability capture the tension and physical impact of the explosions on the rig. In fact, there are impressive sequences that are James Cameron-esque in terms of bringing a cinematic realism to what occurred. Unfortunately, Berg’s penchant for going over board on sentimentality often scuttles what he’s succeeded in recreating on screen. There are also moments of Michael Bay-style pandering patriotism that seem bizarrely out of place. For example, in the middle of the evacuation a rig employee turns around to look back at Deepwater and there’s an American flag dramatically blowing in the wind as the fire rages on behind. I’m not sure what Berg is trying to say with this, but the movie certainly doesn’t need it.
The film’s ending also tries to push the heartstrings so much that you become consciously aware of it. The title cards include a list of all the people who died in the accident with the names appearing below each other one by one by one. Yes, it’s tragic that these innocent employees lost their lives in the disaster, but – outside of one specific instance – these are also people the audience has never met even as random characters in the movie. Meanwhile, the film barely addresses the environmental impact the oil rig caused outside of a short title card.
There are more positives, however. Outside of the Berg’s incredible depiction of the Deepwater’s destruction and the escape of a majority of its crew, the picture also benefits from two fantastic performances by Wahlberg and Rodriguez. At one point, Williams is trying to convince Fleytas to jump off a helicopter landing pad into the ocean below insisting they’ll miss the part of the water’s surface covered with burning oil. It’s a small moment, but Fleytas’ fear is strikingly evident and Rodriguez brings a truth to her strife that benefits the picture immensely. For all the film’s faux sentimentality Rodriguez’s performance is simply the heart of the entire movie.
You can’t dismiss some of Berg’s missteps just as much as you can’t dismiss the thrilling and tension filled events occurring on screen. What happened on the Deepwater was horrific and preventable. And, for the most part, Berg has done the survivors and the families of the lost ones proud with an entertaining movie that sort of brings history alive. [B]