Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” takes the savage intensity of a war movie and applies it to an environmental disaster. Telling the story of the hours surrounding the start of 2010’s BP oil spill, the film gives the viewer a you-are-there look at hell on earth, and utilizes genuinely stunning effects to do so.
In “Deepwater Horizon,” the explosive oil blowout that turns the eponymous vessel into a fire-scorched mess is rendered with jarring realism, the computer work indistinguishable from practical effects. Once the disaster occurs, the film becomes a harrowing, immersive spectacle of rare caliber.
The plot follows Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the vessel’s chief electronics officer, and crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). Harrell, affectionately referred to as “Mr. Jimmy” by his loyal crew, warns BP executives they are bypassing critical safety rules in their rush to catch up to schedule. The executives, including supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), brush off these concerns with less than ideal results when oil, mud, water and methane burst through the main pipe with unstoppable force. Eleven men would die before it was over, and millions of barrels of oil would turn the Gulf into an ecological disaster.
The performances are excellent, even as characterizations are thin, with Williams’ wife (Kate Hudson) being largely unnecessary. But even as Berg takes the time to blame corporate greed, he displays more interest in the specifics of the ship’s business than moralizing. There’s a great deal of lingo-heavy dialogue that doesn’t stop to dumb the specifics down for those not in the petroleum industry, and scenes that illustrate the challenges of the job in fascinating ways. Berg demonstrates deep empathy for these men, skilled professionals with an important, dangerous job. But the unquestionable highlight of the film is the explosion and its aftermath.
And really, what an amazing piece of filmmaking. Oil blasts through grates, nuts and bolts tear through the air as if fired from an artillery shell, flames tear through corridors and illuminate the black sky.
The disaster starts out bad and gets worse at breakneck speed. That any of the ship’s 126 crew survived at all survived might be a miracle.