If it weren’t for the horrifying reality of the utter devastation the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused, the Hollywood restaging of the event could easily be called a work of art or a rollicking ride. But with 11 men dead, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the open ocean and the tagline of the biggest ecological disaster in American history, it is not a film one can cheer on, without feeling like a horrible person. That being said, it is a moving and resounding film that boasts stunning visuals, top-notch acting and a script that never treats the audience like their idiots. It is, arguably, everything you could want in a movie but there is such a dark sadness in that, it is hard to put into words.
The film follows the real-life story of the infamous and titular Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil-rig in the Gulf of Mexico that suffered a catastrophic tragedy in April 2010. As chief electrical engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), navigational worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriquez) and general operation supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) fly out to the rig to spend 21 days away from family and friends, trouble is already beginning to brew beneath the surface. Ominous underwater shots show us fissures in the giant concrete seal keeping the pipe’s contents in place and as the bubbles rise so do our heart rates. While the crew set about their technical and tedious trades, two visiting BP executives frustrated at the project’s long delays decide to make up for lost time by ordering some skewed system tests. When the pressure builds and the drill overflows, the structural flaws turn tragic and a full-scale blowout ensues. Cue one of the most impressive explosions ever put to film and the subsequent hour of gut-wrenching tension it brings with it, before the film finishes on the sombre note that even those who walked away were never quite the same again.
What makes Deepwater Horizon (2016) a standout, if not quite award-worthy, is the mesmerizing quality of its special effects. When the mud boils over and the fire rages, it feels like the hairs on the backs of your arms will singe with the sheer force and power of such catastrophe. Once the action starts it never grants us a moment to breathe either, as body’s slam into metal and quick cuts are choreographed in a complex dance of disarray. Backing up this frenetic feel is an incredible sound design, which provides the creaks and groans of mutilated metal, as well as the fear of a quiet, still moment. There is elegance amidst the chaos, no motion or music added simply for the sake of it and it’s great to see such control invoked. The acting too is exemplary, a credit to the real-life counterparts they convey. Where John Malkovich’s BP oil executive Donald Vidrine could easily have served as the stereotypical villain of the piece, he is humanised in his inability to understand the carnage around him. Similarly, Wahlberg is not your normal hero either, simply a man going about his business and lend a helping hand. Along with Russell and Rodriguez he proves that the real weight of sacrifice is a calm façade in the face of overwhelming terror.
The movie marks the second collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg after the atmospheric army piece Lone Survivor (2013), the duo bringing the same intelligent and visceral style this time round. This is best exemplified by their choice to bookend the film with video from the real-life deposition of a man who was never able to go to sea again. Working from a smart and slick script by Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the two never let us forgot that beneath the awe-inspiring action there is a tragic realism to such calamities. Interestingly the film manages to hold back, for the most part, in demonizing parent company BP, instead focusing on the intrinsically human element amidst the overwhelming spectacle. There are no ‘heroes’ here, simply the believable behaviour of people who made the right decisions at the right time and shared in the payoff of sheer dumb luck. The script is not without its flaws though and this comes in its limited and fraught ending, which, while poignant, pays little attention to the ongoing aftermath. Having stayed with the characters throughout their ordeal, we are never granted the option to leave their side to look at the long-term problems that day caused and that is a tragedy in itself.
Like most disaster films there is a moral undercurrent that lurks beneath the surface of Deepwater Horizon. Thankfully though, Berg never really takes the cheap shot of throwing it in our face. Unlike The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which chastised us for ruining our planet, Deepwater Horizon uses an extended scene of an oil-covered bird thrashing about to do its talking for it. Its incredible visuals and storytelling provide the sheer force and destruction to humble us in ways you couldn’t imagine too. This was no hurricane, no typhoon, no cyclone, volcano, twister or earthquake. This was a man-made accident that permanently scarred the ecosystem and took lives. We seem to forget that in our constant effort for innovation and advancement we are as much our own destroyers as we are our saviours and Berg plays on this in the arresting image of the American flag surrounded by fire and smoke and death. Everything comes with a price.
Explosive, intelligent and genuinely sobering, Deepwater Horizon may not a perfect film, but it is a profound one. It is almost cathartic in how it traverses the fine line between eliciting emotion and playing on our sentimentalities. Because with tragedy, so too is there human spirit, and that stays with us long after the credits role. It is a touching tribute, in its own way, to those who went to work and never made it home, never striving to label itself as heart-warming and heroic piece, but achieving it nonetheless, and for that Deepwater Horizon is well worth the watch.
Rating: 4 Destroyed Lives out of 5
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