Though they have little else in common, Deepwater Horizon bears one crucial similarity to The Big Short: It’s not necessary to understand everything that’s going on to get caught up in the story. There’s lots of shouted jargon and orders as this dramatization of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster unfolds, and while it’s not always clear what they mean, the gist is effectively communicated. It’s never entirely spelled out what the oft-referenced “cement test” is, for example, but it’s enough that we understand that the fact that one hasn’t been done is a very bad thing.
The incomprehensibility is even a plot point in an early scene: Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), electronics chief of the titular oil-drilling platform, and his crew disembark from a helicopter and converse with an outgoing team, and the sound of the rotors obscures what they’re saying to each other—a sign of the lack of communication that will lead to big problems before too long. Before we get to this moment, the movie swiftly introduces us to a few of the key characters, including Mike, whose stint on the Deepwater Horizon means three weeks away from his wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter—whose show-and-tell rehearsal at the breakfast table allows for a bit of exposition about what Daddy does for a living. Once we’re on the Deepwater Horizon itself, though, the emphasis is not on how things work but on how things can go wrong—and they go very wrong indeed.
The series of explosions that caused millions of gallons of crude to spill into the Gulf—the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history—led to the vilification of BP, which was leasing the rig. Deepwater Horizon, however, is less concerned with the environmental impact and more with the people operating the platform, eleven of whom lost their lives as their workplace became an inferno. That’s people collectively, not so much individually; there isn’t a great deal of in-depth characterization in the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Their approach is to celebrate the group effort that went into attempting to stop the inexorable malfunctions and mechanical failures that led to the conflagration, and then into saving themselves and their fellow employees.
Beyond Wahlberg’s Mike, the most prominent of the group is Mr. Jimmy, the well-loved team captain played by Kurt Russell with a flattop and a white-tipped mustache. He represents common sense and concern for his fellow man in the face of the profit-driven ruthlessness of the BP execs, a few of whom are visiting the Deepwater Horizon to give him a safety award just as the tragedy starts unfolding (yep, that really happened). The oil giant’s uncaring arrogance is personified by company rep Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich at his most weasely, complete with a weird pseudo-Cajun accent.
The characterizations may not be subtle, but they serve to hook us quickly into the overall human drama that becomes a survival story as everything breaks down and blows up around them. Director Peter Berg, back on the water four years after the underrated Battleship (that’s right, you heard me), efficiently conveys the crucial relationship between men and their hardware—and it is largely men, though Gina Rodriguez makes a strong impression as technician Andrea. All the details feel right, and help establish the reality of the situation—like the wipers clearing the windows of the drill shack when mud pumped up from underground begins spewing out of burst pipes, as if the earth itself is rebelling against the humans boring into it.
Most importantly, Berg handles the physical action extremely well. His staging is always coherent and consistently exciting, ably balancing spectacle with individual trauma (what happens to Mr. Jimmy is especially ouchy). Kudos are also due to visual effects supervisor Craig Hammack and the many digital/physical craftsmen, whose combined efforts assure that you never think you’re watching effects as the Deepwater workers dodge flames and duck falling steel, and sound designer/editor Wylie Stateman, who creates a fully immersive aural environment. The combined efforts of the entire team put you on the Deepwater Horizon right along with its imperiled corps. A closing dedication provides proper tribute to the eleven who didn’t make it, and what comes before leaves you surprised and appreciative that more lives weren’t lost.