Deepwater Horizon review: A shallow but mythic celebration of blue-collar heroism

In spite of the death of 11 crew members and the unspeakable environment devastation, the film somehow manages to be upbeat – an achievement, albeit a very perverse one

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The Independent Culture

Peter Berg, 107 mins, starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dylan O'Brien, Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich

Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon is one of a number of recent Hollywood features that have somehow managed to find rousing examples of American courage within real-life incidents that were, in fact, utter disasters. In such films, the villains are the elite – the business leaders or politicians. Their mistakes have to be atoned for by blue collar American everyman-types.

In Michael Bay’s shockingly jingoistic 13 Hours: The Soldiers Of Benghazi, the heroes were the security contractors who mounted their own Alamo-like resistance against the Islamic militia attacking the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. In Berg’s 2013 feature Lone Survivor, navy SEALs in Afghanistan bungle a mission and the servicemen are caught in a mountaintop battle against the overwhelming strength of the Taliban.

Here, the heroes are the oil rig workers fighting for survival in the Gulf of Mexico after an apocalyptic blowout on the Deepwater Horizon. They’ve been betrayed by the executives from BP and “their bosses in London”, who run an $185bn company and yet still take short cuts when it comes to safety on the rig.

“Every time I peel off a band-aid on this rig, I find 3 or 4 more,” one engineer complains. (The BP logo here serves roughly the same function as a swastika in Second World War films. Anyone who wears it is absolutely not to be trusted.)

Thankfully, Deepwater Horizon (which is based on an article in the New York Times) drills more deeply into its material than 13 Hours did. Director Berg goes out of his way to give the story of the massive oil spill a mythic dimension. During the first few moments of the film, we don’t see a human face. The earliest glimpse of the main character Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is of him emerging from a deep sleep. He’s at home with his wife (country girl Kate Hudson) and doe-eyed daughter but is just about to go back to work on the rig.

There is a lot of foreshadowing. Little omens hint at the disasters to come. A car won’t start. We see a can of coke exploding. A BP middle manager is wearing a magenta-coloured tie – and for the superstitious rig workers, magenta is as unlucky a colour as you can get. 

Head of safety on the rig is Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), a whiskered old-timer with an exemplary record. He’s a crotchety type but is resourceful, selfless and very competent. Russell plays him like a slightly more benign version of his ageing cowboys in Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight. Pitted against him is the BP supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich).

This is another of Malkovich’s enjoyably Mephistophelian performances. He’s a purring, smiling figure with a little goatee beard that he loves to scratch but, for all his avuncularity, we know instantly that he is an utterly ruthless company man.

Deepwater Horizon - Trailer 2

The film was produced by Participant Media, the eco-conscious company behind Al Gore’s 2006 global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the backers of Deepwater Horizon is Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a state-owned media company from the United Arab Emirates.

However, the environmental consequences of the disaster – the fact that the rig leaked huge amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for over 80 days – aren’t foregrounded here. We see one very disturbing scene in which a sea bird, its plumage thick with oil, flies around in a frenzy in the rig’s control room, crashing against windows and equipment, but there is little else in the film dealing with the impact of the spill on marine life.

You can’t help but marvel at the sheer resourcefulness of the filmmakers in crafting a dramatic feature film based on a newspaper article. They manage to throw in plenty of jargon – asides about blowout preventers (BOPs) and cement integrity – without ever interrupting the flow of the narrative. By including a few Skype conversations between Wahlberg and Kate Hudson back on shore, they’re able to inject a romantic element into the story too.

The cross-cutting between the anxious faces of the rig workers and the dials on their computers helps heighten the tension. At a climactic moment, the crew says the Lord’s Prayer together (“deliver us from evil”). Just like the oil in the pipes of the rig, the pressure in the storyline keeps rising. One character feels a piece of machinery and realises there is a tiny smudge of oil on the top of his finger – a sure sign that the gushing is about to begin. We’re told it will take at least 35 minutes for any helicopters to get to the scene of the catastrophe.

The actual explosion, when it finally happens, is just a little anti-climactic. The rig lights up in the darkness like Blackpool Tower. Characters in their cabins, having showers or talking to loved ones, only very slowly realise what is happening. Soon, inevitably, many of the rig workers are drenched in oil and beginning to look like glistening monsters from the deep as the fires rage around them. Just as in Titanic, there are roll calls and then an undignified scurry for the lifeboats. 

If there was human error on behalf of the crew members, the filmmakers don’t want to investigate it. Instead, they make the film into a celebration of blue-collar heroism. In spite of the death of 11 crew members and the unspeakable environment devastation in the wake of the explosion, Deepwater Horizon somehow manages to be upbeat – an achievement, albeit a very perverse one. The disaster may not have been good for the seagulls but at least it allowed the characters played by Wahlberg and Russell to show their mettle.