April 20th, 2010, off the coast of Louisiana, a semi-submersible oil rig known as the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing eleven people and causing the largest oil spill in history. Director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor/Friday Night Lights) recreates the harrowing events on the rig using an approach that is as inspired by horror films as it is grounded in reality resulting in an immense affect that leaves audiences reeling from the experience.
Deepwater Horizon follows oil rig engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlburg), crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), BP executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), and 3rd mate Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) on a one day chronicle of the events detailing what happened to cause the explosion. Though some argue that the incident was a result of mismanagement or greed, Berg takes time to present several other mitigating factors, such as poor communication and failing equipment, to create as close to a complete picture as possible of the events.
The first thing that sets Deepwater Horizon apart from other “true story” features is how Berg integrates the oil site as a character unto itself. Throughout the film, dialogue references the work of the crew as “plugging the monster” because their job is to drill the hole, plant the pipes, and then pack it in with a material referred to as ‘mud’ to keep the oil from bursting up from the high pressure where the oil lays. Visually and auditorily, Berg sets up the ocean floor, where the cement begins to crack and oil begins to leak, as the home of “the monster” the crew fears. By visiting and revisiting the cracks that form in the deep, dark water, Berg elevates the tension simply and elegantly, enabling the narrative to foreshadow the terror to come without using unnecessary gimmicks or tricks.
The second thing – and perhaps the most surprising – worth noting about Deepwater Horizon is how unabashedly un-Hollywood it is. With a star-studded cast featuring Kurt Russell, Mark Wahlberg, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson, and more, the audience expectation is for the characters to overshadow the story; however, Berg shies away from this which makes the story far more immersive. Moments where audience will expect long speeches are instead cut away to show what other crew members are doing, only to cut back to the end of the speech. In other places, glaring looks held in silence carry more weight than any spirit-lifting monologue. This, too, elevates Deepwater Horizon from other “based on a true story” features, because there is little that is uplifting. The events on display are presented as clearly avoidable, making the lives lost all the more painful. And when it’s all over, the survivors don’t behave as triumphant or victorious, rather they are nearly broken by the experience they didn’t expect to survive. Heart wrenching to watch, yet absolutely refreshing to see such realistic grounding.
Though audiences may have trouble with some aspects of the film due to styling – dialogue is often hard to hear, emergency lights disorient, and the cast becomes hard to track as “the monster” builds to its zenith – it’s clear that this is all intentional to illustrate, and bring to life, the inherent danger of working on an oil rig. In this case, Berg’s approach enables to the audience to experience the deafness that comes with surrounding oneself with high-powered machinery as he shows us time and again the crew shouting at one another to be heard, often moving on from each other without really understanding instructions or directions. He induces sensory deprivation through the use of no-to-low level lighting, forcing audiences to scramble for on-coming threats in the same way as crew members trying to make their way to life rafts. Finally, and possibly the most brutal, Berg repeatedly displays the brutality of the unforgiving “monster” as explosion after explosion rocks the Deepwater Horizon, slamming bodies across their surroundings with immense malice to the point that audiences often can’t follow exactly what they’re seeing. Individually these techniques are disconcerting, yet, when combined, invoke in audiences a fierce, reeling terror.
Audiences familiar with the events of the Deepwater Horizon are more likely aware of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that flowed off into the Louisiana coast. Though that is significant, Berg wisely grounds the story by focusing on the human element – the individuals working on the infamous rig – to lay out exactly what happened. Certainly there is some dramatization to be expected in order to cover everything that happened in one day within its compact 107-minute runtime, but Deepwater Horizon is going to surprise audiences in how un-Hollywood it truly is. Rather, audiences will likely leave feeling as though they took part in the tragic events of April 20, 2010. In terms of storytelling, that’s a mighty huge accomplishment.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.