Deepwater Horizon sees director Peter Berg follow up his 2013 hit Lone Survivor with another dramatisation of a harrowing true story, tackling the worst oil disaster in American history for the first of his two cinematic endeavours of 2016 (the excellent Patriots Day being the second). Deepwater Horizon certainly plays out like a disaster movie in some respects, but it's grounded by Berg's realistic touch, and remains as respectful as possible to those involved in the tragedy. It's also far more fearsome and haunting than just another run-of-the-mill Hollywood disaster yarn. This is Berg's first based-on-a-true story thriller to be given a sizable blockbuster budget, but unfortunately the gamble didn't pay off at the box office; Deepwater underperformed and reportedly lost a considerable amount of money. Nevertheless, much like Berg's Patriots Day, we should appreciate that the movie was produced in the first place with a proper budget to do the material justice, and it deserves a second life on home video.
A chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is also a devoted family man, husband to wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and father to the young Sydney (Stella Allen). But Mike is compelled to leave his family for three weeks while he works aboard the Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana. The rig is unfortunately burdened by equipment that's in dire need of repair, but BP managers Donald (John Malkovich) and Robert (Brad Leland) try to downplay the issues as they push the crew to get the job done and make up for lost time. The rig's installation manager, Jimmy (Kurt Russell), challenges the demands of the executives, but corporate interests prevail and work continues. Tragedy inevitably strikes, however, when a massive blowout leaves several workers dead and the vessel in flames, prompting an evacuation in order to save as many men as possible.
The screenplay - credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand - is based on a New York Times article from 2010 entitled "Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours." Wisely, the script for the most part remains focused on the disaster, with little in the way of extraneous subplots to distract from the primary story. Before the chaos erupts, Berg juggles character introductions with expository information to ensure the uninitiated will be able to grasp the basics of deep sea oil exploration and the fundamental physics involved, though it's not exactly an in-depth school lesson. Berg has an affinity for character work, as well - even though names don't always stick when it comes to the background characters, they are imbued with little individual quirks to distinguish each of them from one another. Clocking in at a modest 105 minutes, Deepwater Horizon is a mercifully lean experience, never lingering anywhere for too long, but it doesn't feel underdone either.
Berg exhibits his reliably adept cinematic craftsmanship when the disaster begins to unfold, and the resulting scenes of fiery destruction and peril are genuinely harrowing. Berg reportedly had a $156 million budget to work with, and it shows - the combination of elaborate sets, dangerous stunt-work and exceptional digital effects creates a scarily thrilling demise for the Deepwater Horizon, never looking anything less than entirely believable. You can almost feel the heat of the flames. Berg manages to get away with so much within the confines of a PG-13 rating - the movie is not gory, but it's definitely disturbing. And astonishingly, despite the rating, it doesn't seem as if the movie was constructed with commercial prospects in mind. However, the deaths of the crew don't always carry the weight that they should, though a roll call after the fact will give you chills. Berg also makes use of multiple perspectives to create a complete picture of the disaster - the U.S. Coast Guard is called upon for a rescue and nearby vessels witness the chaos from afar, all the while Mike's wife Felicia is at home crippled with worry, determined to learn anything she can about the unfolding situation.
One aspect of Deepwater Horizon which never quite gels is the presence of Donald, who's not exactly treated with any subtlety. Played with a thick Cajun accent by Malkovich, the BP executive is portrayed as an out-and-out cartoonish antagonist, giving audiences somebody to despise when the real villain here is nature. One supposes it was a creative choice on the part of Berg rather than Malkovich, but Donald is much too broad in an otherwise realistic and sobering motion picture. Elsewhere, acting right across the board is exceptional, lead by Wahlberg who seems to be Berg's go-to leading man for these sorts of projects. Whereas Wahlberg played a fictional composite character in Patriots Day, Mike Williams was a real electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon - in fact, there are no fictitious characters in the mix here. Russell, always a reliable performer, brings real gravitas to his role of Mr. Jimmy, and Gina Rodriguez acquits herself confidently as Andrea, the rig's sole female worker. Kate Hudson doesn't get a great deal to work with, but she is convincing as Mike's wife.
Although Deepwater Horizon does fall short of perfection, and it's not as great as Patriots Day, it's nevertheless a characteristically strong effort from Berg, who has found his niche doing these types of realistic thrillers. Berg also reminds us that the movie is not mere exploitation by including real footage of the incident and of the people involved right as the credits begin to roll (much like both Lone Survivor and Patriots Day), which closes the door on a touching note. Deepwater Horizon manages to be an important chronicle of a contemporary disaster, and even though it's not exactly escapism, it's an engaging watch.