Deepwater Horizon - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Deepwater Horizon’ horrifyingly recreates the 2010 disaster in-depth


Directed by:  Peter Berg

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson


“Deepwater Horizon” – I really should buy an electric car.  I have talked about it for years.  I just need to do it and then plug my future vehicle into a 50-foot high windmill each evening.   The idealist in me wants to reduce my carbon footprint, and this feeling substantially heightened during the ungodly British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in 2010.   On April 20, 2010, BP’s unstable oil well blew and almost 5 million barrels of crude subsequently spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of months. In the process, it destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig – owned by Transocean - and massively polluted the surrounding environment in the worst such disaster in United States history.   The scope of 5 million barrels of oil pouring into the gulf’s ocean waters is truly unfathomable to comprehend, and for many people, BP will always be considered a “four-letter word”. 


The disaster film “Deepwater Horizon” uses revealing words and striking visuals to recreate the horrific events from the perspective of the rig’s chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) over a speedy 1-hour 47-minute runtime.  Director Peter Berg sometimes misses with big budget action films – like “Hancock” (2008) and “Battleship” (2012) - but recently connected with the true war story “Lone Survivor” (2013) with Wahlberg in the title role.  This time, Berg and Wahlberg connect again in a film about true events, and the two form a winning combination in a movie that contains no winners.  We do, however, find heroes.     


Prior to the previously-mentioned disaster and heroic efforts, the movie performs an important visual service as well, by showcasing the elaborate infrastructure associated with offshore rigs.   Since the Deepwater Horizon sits about 40 miles out to sea, the quickest way to travel there - with your hardhat and lunch pail - is by helicopter via the Bristow Heliport, which feels like a highly secure mini-airport.  We see Mike, his boss Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and others, like his coworker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez), run through extensive protocols and then fly over the ocean to put in “normal” workdays for a number of weeks at a time.   Berg sets up a real sense of unease by introducing the isolation and danger of exploring for fossil fuels.  The danger initially appears through numerous, small Deepwater Horizon issues that Mike needs to address, and – of course - the drill itself which travels about one mile to the ocean floor.  


With an appropriately anxious setting established, the film quickly offers a lengthy list of Transocean protagonists and BP antagonists.  While I do not have actual knowledge of the black and white distinctions between “good” and “bad” characters here (and their respective companies, for that matter), the film portrays BP – led by oil executive Vidrine (John Malkovich) - as impatiently demanding to drill despite repeated warnings by Transocean employees.   As a viewer, once I saw Malkovich on the big screen, I immediately understood that BP would absolutely pull the wrong figurative levers to trigger the impending catastrophe.   (Hey, traditional Malkovich characters seem to possess that type of aura.)


The catastrophe obviously dominates much of the movie, and the impressive special effects portray a hellish nightmare of never-ending reservoirs of fossil fuel feeding an inferno amongst the twisted metal with over 100 souls on board.  Berg depicts an impossible situation with about a half-dozen heart-stopping moments and constant unease, as fire spreads in every direction with accompanying explosions on the manmade, floating island. 


“Deepwater Horizon” works as a thriller, because it offers a series of contrasts to drive our emotions.  For instance, it clearly introduces likeable and unlikeable characters.  With the likeable characters, we – at first - eavesdrop on their light, jovial conversations about family and college football versus the subsequent blaring exchanges with death seemingly very close.  Most of all, the struggle of man versus nature finds itself on display with horrendous and cataclysmic consequences. 


There is some time devoted to the worried families at home, but Berg keeps these storylines at a thrifty minimum and focuses on the actual incident and the missteps leading up to it.   The end result is an appreciatively exhausting film which doubles as a cautionary tale on whether or not such oil explorations should even be attempted in the first place. 


The idealist in me hopes that future generations everywhere will labor on massive solar panel grids or attend to friendly, towering windmills, rather than fly to faraway marine locales and trench the planet for oil.  Well, the realist in me understands that those days are probably far off, because six years after the BP oil spill, I am still pondering the purchase of an electric car.  (3/4 stars)


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.