For a movie that is quite literally about drilling under the surface, director Peter Berg doesn’t really delve too deeply in Deepwater Horizon, his highly combustible “based on a true story” recounting of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. The worst environmental disaster in US history, the events of 20 April 2010 saw the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible offshore drilling rig explode in an ungodly conflagration, depositing millions of litres of crude oil into the sea and claiming the lives of eleven men.

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The fiery fallout would make headlines around the world and prompt international debate and in-depth probes into what went wrong and how it could be prevented. Lawsuits and counter-lawsuits abounded, fingers were pointed at high profile targets, and criminal shortcomings were exposed in a drama that spanned months. All of this occupies just the smallest act of Berg’s film though. Onscreen memorials and epitaphs and a particularly dramatic bit of acting still get your throat all lumpy, but it’s disproportionately brief when compared with what really transpired.

But what Deepwater Horizon lacks in real world activism, it more than makes up for in pure white-knuckled suspense as Berg and co. put on a riveting display of technical filmmaking brilliance. This is a Hollywood disaster film devoid of the genre’s typical cartoonishness, and Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand portray these events, and more importantly these real people, with a sobering, honorable seriousness.

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Past collaborator Mark Wahlberg once again serves as Berg’s everyman entry point, starring as Mike Williams, the lead electrical technician stationed on the rig. Williams is a family man, and it’s through some clever exposition dumps disguised as character beats for his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) that we get the basic mechanics of Deepwater Horizon’s job explained to us. Enjoy the simplicity of the explanations while it lasts, because soon, as Mike and his colleagues ship out to the rig for a 21-day offshore stint, the nearly indecipherable technical jargon starts flying through thick and fast.

Not that you’ll need any sort of translation because while most audience members won’t understand half the engineering terms being bandied about, fear is undoubtedly a universal language we are all familiar with. As Williams and his co-workers – superstitious and paternal offshore crew manager Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and the only lady onboard, navigation officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) – arrive on site, they soon find themselves asking questions about missed tests by previous shifts, odd readings from their drilling equipment, and a rig in desperate need of repairs. As the audience knows the tragic calamity that awaits these people, Berg uses that foreknowledge to ratchet up tension to unbearable levels with every single detail revealed.

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Adding proverbial fuel to the soon-to-be very real fire is a group of onboard execs from BP. They’ve hired the rig from Transocean to drill them a new well, but the operation is currently 43 days behind schedule and the Transocean staff keep running into problem after problem, each one more costly than the last. Mr Jimmy is gravely concerned by all the cost- and time-cutting the BP delegation are calling for to get back on target, but he’s being severely pressured by exec Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), whose own tests and logic seem to indicate that everything should be good to go with the well.

Of course it isn’t.

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After Deepwater Horizon has stuffed you in a proverbial pressure cooker for the film’s opening act, when all that pressure eventually blows out, it does so in a bone-rattling nightmare of flame, mud and oil that beggars belief. Berg’s technical team shine with incredibly realistic VFX so that you never know what is CG and what is practical effect. That level of authenticity is not just important as a feather in the cap of the responsible digital artists, but it also helps to keep you grounded in the fact that what you’re watching is not some Hollywood screenwriter’s explosion fetish, but actually the horrifying real chaos experienced by actual people.

Each subsequent explosion of fire and noise that rocks the rig seems bigger than the last, killing many before they even know that there is a problem. And it’s amidst all this carnage that Berg and his cast play out the human drama that occurred as heroes were made and lives were lost. While the principal characters are admittedly stuck with pretty threadbare characterizations, mainly consisting of a tiny handful of brief home life vignettes and dropped lines earlier on in the film, it’s in these dark moments that we really get to know them.

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And the cast all rise to the occasion to give these people the dramatic gravitas required, with Rodriguez being the emotional standout. Wahlberg and Russell both deliver equally well in their roles, while Malkovich turns in a deliciously hammy performance and Dylan O’Brien, Ethan Suplee and Jeremy Sande round out the capable cast.

It’s this character drama, of ordinary people faced with an extraordinary situation, that occupies the bulk of what Berg is trying to say with this movie; choosing to zero in with this micro look instead of the macro view on the greater fallout of the disaster. And it most definitely works in the moment, as Berg’s slick technical production and strong performances keep you absolutely breathless and riveted to your seat. You may just want something a little bit more when the credits roll.

Last Updated: September 27, 2016

Deepwater Horizon
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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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