When it comes to real-life tragedies, where is the line between exploitation and extolment of the survivors? If Deepwater Horizon straddles that line, it does so in a way that manages to be exciting without feeling insensitive.
After all, it’s been just six years since an explosion on the massive oil rig off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the largest such disaster in U.S. history.
This embellished cinematic account of the incident is stylish and evocative, telling the story with a conventional structure but with a palpable sense of urgency. The extended sequence involving the spill itself and subsequent explosion is both harrowing and heartbreaking.
“Anything that big ought to be made by God,” jokes an executive from rig operator British Petroleum while flying past the site on a helicopter. And indeed, during that fateful day when it went up in flames, more than 100 people were aboard.
The film focuses on a handful of them, including Mike (Mark Wahlberg), an engineer with a wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter back home; Jimmy (Kurt Russell), the respected crew chief who clashes with a BP official (John Malkovich) over the necessity of safety tests that — surprise — foretell problems; and a floorhand (Dylan O’Brien) who is among the first to notice something is amiss.
Since most viewers will know the basic details, the screenplay smartly takes a character-driven approach focused more on the plight of those on the rig than placing the blame off of it. It digs behind the headlines to capture the details of life on board, such as its diverse crew and their responsibilities, as well as the way in which the remote locale hampers the rescue efforts of first responders.
Still, in this case, the result provides a somewhat simplistic portrayal of corporate greed as both workers and BP executives casually ignore the red flags in the days leading up to the pipe bursting.
As directed by Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), the film’s heavy-handed tendencies and cheesy contrivances threaten to undermine the heroism of those aboard that the film seeks to celebrate. Still, if you get past that hurdle, Deepwater Horizon is a pretty solid disaster flick about a desperate fight for survival with plenty of lasting resonance — both environmentally and emotionally — for those along the coast and beyond.