Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand
Runtime: 107 mins
Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Mike Williams), Kurt Russell (Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Farrell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), John Malkovich (Vidrine), David Maldonado (Kuchta), Kate Hudson (Felicia), Dylan O’Brien (Caleb Holloway)
“Hope ain’t a tactic”: Director Peter Berg’s angry depiction of the well from hell sticks the knife into BP
Towards the end of Deepwater Horizon, based on the disastrous 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of survivors drop to their knees and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Upon the line “Deliver us from evil” the camera cuts to the rig, completely engulfed in flames, reminding us of a line spoken earlier: “This is the well from hell”. Indeed, the actual incident killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others and devasted marine life (210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean).
I headed to the cinema with a certain degree of trepidation, concerned that this might in some way be an exploitative film that maximised thrills at the expense of reality. I never expect total accuracy from a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events – the demands of story-telling rarely allow that – but it is important that the broad picture is roughly accurate and, in the case of a tragedy like this one, is respectful to those who risked or lost their lives.
In any event, Deepwater Horizon struck me as deeply respectful to the plight of the riggers, though BP executives will no doubt feel they have been painted as pantomime villains (especially with Malkovich channelling his familiar evil side as BP representative, Vidrine). There isn’t much time for in-depth characterisation, but three people in particular are foregrounded to elicit our sympathies. The first of these is Michael Williams (Wahlberg), who we see in the opening scenes spending his last breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). The latter gives us a potted account of how oil is created, in the form of an essay written for school, and also demonstrates how drilling works, using a can of coke.
The second key figure is “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a rugged no-nonsense figure of authority who has the last word on whether or not drilling can proceed. The third is Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), the only woman that we see on the rig and whose sensible judgment when disaster strikes is overruled by a bullying male colleague.
The first hint of danger comes when the helicopter transporting workers to the rig experiences a birdstrike. Upon arrival at the free-floating Deepwater Horizon platform, Williams and Harrell are concerned to discover that the previous team have not conducted safety checks on the cement casing around the production equipment. BP’s representatives, Vidrine and Kuchta (Maldonado), blithely assert their confidence in the integrity of the cementing, on the basis of no evidence at all, and are obviously motivated by the fact that a planned experimental drilling operation is behind time and over budget. Harrell insists on a safety test, but when the results are somewhat ambiguous he allows himself to be pressurised into permitting drilling. This leads to a blowout in which methane escapes from the well and up the drillshaft, where it ignites on the platform.
The subsequent depictions of fire, explosions and desperate attempts to control the situation, whilst assisting the injured, are absolutely compelling. For those of us who have ever wondered what an oil rig disaster must be like, this imagining of such an event is a terrifying eye-opener. I was so swept up in events that it was only later that I realised that a considerable amount of CGI must have been involved. It doesn’t show.
If ever there was a picture of human vulnerability, it is surely Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell waking from unconsciousness, naked on the floor of what used to be a shower, half-blind, and his body peppered with glass. After being rescued by Williams, he himself resumes the direction of operations.
It is quite something that a Hollywood movie should so clearly stick the knife into a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that is exactly what Deepwater Horizon does to BP. And it does so without resorting to cliché. Director Peter Berg has chosen to tell this story in a straightforward unfussy way. It just happens to be one hell of a story.