Director Peter Berg takes on a big story – the Deepwater Horizon tragedy of 2010 – and treats it with due respect in this dramatic and stirring retelling of one of the big environmental disasters of modern times. It tells the story principally through the experience of chief electronics technician Mike Williams (a typically workmanlike Mark Wahlberg) who played a critical role in trying to control the oil rig fire. Although Williams, and his relationship with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) provide the film with an emotional centre, the real drama and tension comes between the oil rig chief “Mr Jimmy” (gruffly and grittily played by Kurt Russell) and BP man Donald Vidrine (a superbly pitched performance from John Malkovich). The Deepwater Horizon is a month and a half behind schedule, and the pressure is on from BP to get the well secure and the oil pumping. So when Mr Jimmy turns up for a new shift he finds a critical safety test has not been carried out. He wants it to be done, Vidrine doesn’t, and things unravel from there.
We know what’s coming but Berg builds the tension nicely, and the script allows for plenty of camaraderie – much of it rather funny – among the Deepwater crew, so that when it all goes belly up the audience has some investment in what happens to who. The film starts with audio from one real-life Deepwater crew member, and while we don’t immediately know who that is, this lends proceedings with an air of credibility and authority.
There are only a few quibbles. Maybe it’s the speed at which the American drawl of some characters is delivered, but following the ins and outs of what the safety test is all about may be challenging for some. The big picture is clear, but you might get lost in the detail.
And the film squarely focuses on the events leading up the disaster and the tragedy itself. Anyone looking for a dissection of how BP conducted itself afterwards will be disappointed. This is the tale of the men and women who worked on the Deepwater Horizon. They are all portrayed in a heroic fashion, while all the BP people we meet are less sympathetically depicted. This may be how it was, but one wonders if it was all as clear cut. In that regard Mark Wahlberg’s lead character is almost too much of a nice guy. A loving husband and father, a good mate at work, he gets on with everyone and when it comes to it is a hero in the face of an inferno. The real Mike Williams may be just such a man.
I see some reviewers have taken issue with the way actual news footage is used late in the film and the way the film ends. I didn’t have a problem with this myself. That audio in the beginning of the film I think justifies returning to the real event at the end.
Overall this is a really well delivered work. I enjoyed it, it had genuine tension and I cared about what happened to the characters. Recommended.