A salute is in order for Peter Berg – the man can direct a disaster movie like nobody’s business. What strengthens Deepwater Horizon and raises the bar on the possibilities of the genre is that the story he tells is honestly and horrifyingly true. The film depicts the worst oil spill in American history when the BP-leased deepwater drilling rig, owned by Transocean, exploded on April 20, 2010, some 35 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Amid the spray of mud, oil and environmental calamity, 11 lives were lost. Berg creates the cataclysm of that day with unbearable tension and healing compassion.
It starts predictably with a few personal details about the 126 men and women of the crew prepping to spend 20 days away from home doing the tech work necessary on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Mark Wahlberg, who teamed admirably with Berg on the Afghan war drama Lone Survivor, is stellar as Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician who grabs a quickie with his wife (Kate Hudson) before reporting for duty. Gina Rodriguez is a livewire as Andrea Fleytas, another techie on the job.
Onboard, the mechanics of the plot fall into place. Mike and his Transocean manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), are having safety issues. Mister Jimmy, as everyone calls him, doesn’t like what he sees. Russell is just tremendous in the role, backing up the bluster with the keen instincts of an experienced hand. Mister Jimmy locks horns with BP rep Donald Vidrine (a full-tilt John Malkovich), a BP bureaucrat who wants to cut corners since the rig is already 43 days behind schedule. Malkovich is outstanding at showing the fear lurking beneath this greedy suit. And the strain escalates as Berg keeps cutting below the surface to the pipes that look ready to blow.
Chaos is too small a word to encompass what transpires when all howling hell breaks loose. But Berg does a tremendous job of throwing us into the action with the help of dizzying handheld camerawork from Enrique Chediak. The director knocks the ground out from under us, sometimes leaving audiences as lost and disoriented as the crew. You can’t blame him for celebrating the acts of heroism, small and huge, on the screen. But never for a moment doubt that we’re still dealing with the tragic environmental consequences.