Movie Review: “Deepwater Horizon” – Success Under Pressure

Written by Jeremiah Greville October 19, 2016

Deepwater Horizon - Stephen Curtis (Jason Pine), Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), Donald Clark (Ronald Weaver) and Jason Anderson (Ethan Suplee) ©2016 Lionsgate, photo by David LeeThere is a single moment in this film, one scene that elevates the entire movie above what could have been a moralizing disaster porn debacle. It’s not a difficult or awe-inspiring scene, just an emotionally affecting and honest one. It’s what I’ll remember going forward, and it’s what gave me pause while watching. It’s rare for scenes like this one to come along, and I’ll be discussing it in more detail below, but because of that single scene, Deepwater Horizon succeeds where so many disaster films like it fail. It’s not a perfect film, and it’s otherwise unmemorable, but due to that small choice it’s something I can safely recommend.

Deepwater Horizon tells the story of the 2010 BP oil disaster in the U.S. Gulf Coast, the largest oil spill to ever take place in U.S. waters. It stars Mark Wahlberg as oil rig worker Mike Williams, Kurt Russell as offshore information manager Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, and John Malkovich as Donald Vidrine, a BP oil executive. Kate Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, and Ethan Suplee fill out some of the smaller roles in the cast, and each does a commendable job, but this movie is three-man show, revolving around Wahlberg, Malkovich, and Russell. Wahlberg is our entry character, and while he’s our focal point for the emotional impact of the film, the first two-thirds are entirely Russell and Malkovich playing steely blue-collar grit and slimy Southern greed off of each other respectively. When the film becomes the disaster movie you expect, Wahlberg becomes the sole focus. He’s a known action star, and continues to be one here.

“That oil is a monster”

If you’ve seen any of the marketing for this film, or even glimpsed the poster, you can’t be blamed for expecting most of this movie to be an action thriller. I’m sorry to say that you’ll probably be disappointed, as the first two thirds of this film contain little action at all, with things only heating up in the final act. This movie is really almost two separate films in one. The first two thirds is a tense, steadily-paced stand-off between the crew of the Deepwater Horizon facility and the BP oil executives that are pushing them to flaunt safety protocols to get the job done sooner. The last third is the actual disaster, and the story of the crew doing what they can to help each other and contain the leak, and eventually escape. This distinction between the two halves of this movie is not to say that there is a disparity in storytelling. While at times it resembles two separate films, it never feels like that as you watch it, and the events of the first half expertly build tension for the fiery theatrics of the finale. Despite the fact that this movie is not the non-stop disaster hero story advertised, it’s still a worthwhile entry and never feels completely wasted.

Deepwater Horizon

There’s nothing especially spoiler-worthy in this film (since it’s based on a true story) and the film knows it, choosing instead to spend the bulk of it’s time building the tension to the eventual explosion. This is one of those times when a movie treats its audience with actual respect, assuming correctly that we already know–either through the news or the marketing–what’s going to happen. The filmmakers use that knowledge to help fill what could be boring expository moments with irony, tension, and clever foreshadowing. The most obvious of these occurs in one of the first scenes of the movie, a terribly saccharine family sequence with Wahlberg and Hudson where a demonstration of their daughter’s school project on drilling fails spectacularly at the kitchen table–a clear nod to later events of the film.

“We’re a big company. Millions of moving parts.”

Most of the film’s set-up is a bit more subtle, and each move closer to disaster is used to highlight the hubris, weakness, and greed of the BP oil executives and the oil rig workers at their mercy. This a film about moral culpability and greed, and showcases that through the conflicts leading up to the accident. For every person pushing the plot closer to explosion, there’s a level-headed blue-collar hero disagreeing with them and arguing for safety. While the film is certainly in some ways anti-corporate, it’s really about standing up to and facing a foe much bigger than you; the oil rig workers have to stand up to the BP executives, the BP executives have to stand up to congress (or stand accountable), and everyone has to stand up to the flames that threaten to engulf them. The fascinating moral lessons here are about what you do in the face of failure–everyone fails, and everyone has to deal with the consequences. Really, this movie is about pressure, both in the figurative and literal sense. Overwhelming pressure from above and below. Nobody beats the pressure–it always overwhelms and breaks through. This is a movie about dealing with the aftermath.

Deepwater Horizon - Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson

I mentioned earlier the single scene that elevates this movie above what could’ve been a trite, moralizing disaster film. I’m going to spoil it here now, but I don’t really think that anything is lost by pointing it out. It comes near the end of the film: Williams, played by Wahlberg, has arrived on shore at his hotel following the disaster. He’s confronted in the lobby with the families of the eleven men lost on the rig. He makes his way to his hotel room, where he collapses on the floor, crying. His wife and daughter come in to find him on the floor and rush to comfort him. He holds his daughter and wife and openly weeps. We see him get better. We see the three of them stay together there until he’s okay. It sounds like a very simple sequence, and it is, but it’s the key emotional moment that sells the film. Our stalwart action hero, Williams, played by noted action hero actor Wahlberg, is openly affected and broken because of what he’s been through. That’s rare to see on film. But what makes this scene memorable is the way his family helps him, and the way he accepts their help. He never pushes them away and they never spurn him. There’s no macho bravado or hopeless pity. He holds his daughter close for comfort while he cries in front of her, and she’s there to comfort him because she loves him. It’s touching and tear-jerking, and totally earned. And it’s this rare moment of emotional vulnerability and honesty that I’ll take with me, above all of the spectacle and tense stand-offs throughout.

“My daddy tames the dinosaurs.”

Deepwater Horizon is a competent and compelling exploration of the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. While it’s not the action-packed non-stop thrill ride that’s been advertised, it’s slower moments are filled with tension and build-up that pay off big in the finale. Wahlberg is serviceable as the lead character, but the real acting in the first and second acts is done by Malkovich and Russell playing off of each other. When the disaster begins, it’s as harrowing as you’d expect, but it’s what leads up to it and what comes after that makes the movie work. This may be a story about people and structures failing under pressure, but under scrutiny the film actually succeeds.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Deepwater Horizon 2016 Theatrical Poster (U.S.)

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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