DEEPWATER HORIZON. Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien, Kate Hudson. Directed by Peter Berg. 107 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).
‘Deepwater Horizon’ tells the harrowing true story of the men and women aboard the titular oil rig in April 2010, when their rig suffered the single biggest oil disaster in U.S. history. Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician aboard the vessel when its pipes and hardware undergo a critical failure. This is the second of what could be labelled director Peter Berg’s ‘harrowing true story starring Mark Wahlberg trilogy’, following ‘Lone Survivor’ (with Wahlberg as the lone survivor of a SEAL team attacked by the Taliban) and preceding ‘Patriots Day’ (this time with Wahlberg as a cop caught up in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing). Berg pulls out the same tricks as he did on ‘Lone Survivor’, making this film both a tribute to the extraordinary acts of heroism by the people involved and a white-knuckle thriller bubbling with unease.
The real life Mike Williams’ court testimony about the accident opens the film, before we’re whisked back in time to see Mark Wahlberg interacting with Kate Hudson (playing Williams’ wife Felicia) and Stella Allen (playing their daughter Sydney) the morning before he heads back out to sea. Through the pretext of Sydney practicing for a school presentation on her Dad’s job, screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand give the audience a quick introduction to the role of the Deepwater Horizon rig. Demonstrated with a shaken-up can of Coke, a sharpened metal tube, and a squeeze bottle of honey, its function is simplistically displayed; the workers have to carefully establish a stable pipeline into the high-pressure oil reservoir beneath the sea floor, and carefully excavate tonnes of mud before the pipeline can become functional. Some none-too-subtle foreshadowing, with the Coke demonstration accidentally erupting (which seems almost comical in retrospect and in writing), is surprisingly spine-tingling.
Mike and a number of other crew members coming back from onshore rotation travel the 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana to the rig by helicopter. Among them are Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, pitch perfect), the grizzled rig captain, and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez, a lovely empathetic performance), a mechanics whiz. Also with them are a couple of higher ups from British Petroleum, the company who hired Mike and Co.’s firm, Transocean, to tap into the oil field. The rig is a magnificent set, fully constructed in New Orleans for the film, and plenty of sweeping wide shots convey the massive scope of the structure. Elsewhere, DP Enrique Chediak uses a handheld camera style to add a very present, realistic edge to the experiences of those on board.
But being a disaster flick, this build-up is all pervaded by the creeping sense of what is coming down the pipeline (or should that be ‘up the pipeline’?). The script pins the blame for the accident pretty squarely on the BP men stationed on the rig, led by the de facto villain Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who are portrayed as putting profit before safety. No doubt the reality was a little cloudier, but Malkovich’s Louisiana drawl screams Villainy 101, so he’s an easy target. The BP men cancelled an ‘cement log test’ – consisting of checking the concrete laid around the pump on the sea floor for integrity – to save time and moolah, and Mr Jimmy is not happy about it; he orders a ‘negative pressure test’ in its stead, and its results are mixed. Nevertheless, Vidrine orders them to proceed with the scheduled mud removal, and this is naturally when the mud hits the proverbial fan.
What follows is scene after scene of dry-mouth-inducing terror, as the rig becomes an inferno. The action is astonishing and visceral – my palms were slick after only a few minutes. Berg makes it clear that every wall, ceiling panel, pipe etc. is capable of exploding without notice, as flammable gas and highly pressurised mud rushes throughout the rig. Berg makes his case to direct a horror film next, with the camera tracking hidden gas flows through labyrinthine networks of pipes as vulnerable workers stand frozen beneath them. Some of the injuries sustained in the mayhem seem to bely the M rating, so parents should be wary of taking children. Though we know that Mike Williams survives (we hear his post-disaster testimony in the opening seconds), it is to the credit of Berg and Wahlberg (a thoroughly decent and stoic presence, who has always had a hint of working-class charm to him as an actor) that his life feels in real jeopardy at every turn. The final act plays out with two main plot strands, the workers fighting to survive on the rig, and the scramble of emergency services onshore trying to save them. Kate Hudson’s hapless search for information anchors their stories back to shore, and she does some of her most genuinely emotive work in years here.
Ultimately, not all of the 126 crew members on board Deepwater Horizon made it out alive. Seeing the disaster from the inside, this is hardly surprising. The film manages to pay tribute to these folks, their incredible acts of sacrifice, and also create a deeply human portrayal of an overwhelming, almost incomprehensible disaster.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 6.