by Jeff Walls
In April 2010, the off-shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, leaving oil gushing from an underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico for eighty-seven days. It is considered to be the biggest oil disaster in U.S. history. While the ongoing spill and the attempts to cap it got headlines for months, what was lost in the shuffle was the horrifying experience of those working aboard the rig when it happened. The movie Deepwater Horizon is here to remedy that.
The movie opens with audio from the hearings investigating the cause of the disaster. The voice we hear is the true voice of electrician Mike Williams, a man whose story of survival served as inspiration for the film. We are then introduced to the on-screen Mike, played by Mark Wahlberg. Mike says goodbye to his wife and daughter before leaving to spend what he thinks will be the next three weeks aboard the oil rig of the title, but what will turn out to be only one horrible night.
Upon arriving on the rig, Mike and others learn that the executives at BP have decided to skip a standard test in fear of falling further behind than they already are on the project. They insist that the project is ready to go and although Mike and others have their doubts, the company men get their way. The results are disastrous. High-pressure methane gas from the well expands into the drill and floods the drilling rig where it ignites and explodes. The entire rig bursts into flames and the 126 crew members onboard find themselves fighting for their lives.
The movie narrows down those 126 crew members to focus mainly on three: Mike, rig operator Andrea Fleytas, and supervisor Jimmy Harrell (aka Mr. Jimmy). We meet a few other characters, but none of their backstories are as fleshed out as Mike and Andrea’s. There is little mentioned about Mr. Jimmy’s backstory, but since he is played by star Kurt Russell and given so much screentime, we come to identify with him anyway. Mr. Jimmy essentially acts as the Deepwater Horizon’s conscience: the conscience the suits refuse to listen to. The “bad guy” role is taken up by John Malkovich, who plays BP executive Vidrine, the man who makes the fatal go-ahead call.
Mark Wahlberg also played a survivor in director Peter Berg’s last film, Lone Survivor, and he is perfect for this kind of role. Despite being a former music star and underwear model, the actor still manages to feel like an everyman in roles like this. His character’s professionalism and sense of humor in the movie’s early scenes make him an easy one to root for and because he is very much a guy’s guy, we buy that he might survive an insane ordeal like this.
And what an insane ordeal it is. After building up the tension with the conflict between the crew and the BP executives, the movie erupts in the middle and throws us as the audience directly into the chaos. Unfortunately, it gets a little too chaotic and it becomes nearly impossible to follow the geography of what is happening around us. There are rapid cuts showing characters thrown into walls and piping or into the fire, but it is often impossible to tell what just happened and to whom. This is likely intentional, forcing the audience to feel the chaos and insanity that the real-life characters depicted in the film had to go through, but other movies have been able to successfully do this while letting the audience understand what is going on. The D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan is the prime example.
Although the audience may feel lost during this central sequence, the movie never really loses them. The entire sequence is intense and engrossing, making the film’s 107 minute runtime just fly by. It is aided by some incredible special effects which make all of the horror seem that much more terrifying.
Although some of the actual crew members who lived through this disaster have been outspoken against the film, it feels like a story that needed to be told. It is not sensationalized and helps us in the audience to better understand the horror that these men lived through on that fateful night in April 2010.
Deepwater Horizon is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!