Hollywood has finally found someone to compete with Nazis for the title of ultimate movie villains: Oil executives. In Deepwater Horizon, the blue-collar crew of an off-shore rig battles malfunctioning equipment, unpredictable weather, blow outs, explosions, and fires. But all those dangers seem to pale in comparison to the threat posed by a bunch of starchy white men. In their uniform of button-down shirts and khaki pants, they’re the walking embodiment of unfeeling corporate greed.

In the wake of the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, much of the news coverage centered on the catastrophic environmental disaster; oil flowed from the broken well for 87 days, leaking 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon puts the spotlight back on another loss: The eleven people who died on April 20, 2010. Berg’s tense disaster thriller keeps its focus on the rank and file guys who worked this job, and gave their lives for it.

Its central figure is Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) the chief electrical technician on the Deepwater Horizon. The film opens with a unique twist on the old "Based on true events" title card (although it has one of those too). We hear the real Williams giving testimony about the disaster; how he was talking to his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) when he heard a hiss and then a massive explosion. In a matter of seconds, Berg gives the audience a milestone to nervously anticipate, and an anchor for Deepwater Horizon’s suspense.

Though Williams is the clear protagonist, Berg also gives significant screentime to other members of the Horizon crew. Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a young bridge officer, had car trouble the morning she headed out to sea. When Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell, the boss of the ship, arrives at the Horizon via helicopter, he’s immediately concerned by the early departure of several important personnel (including a cameoing Berg), who leave without conducting a key safety test. The reason: Those damn BP executives, who are concerned about mounting delays in the Horizon’s work, not the mounting pressure in the well, which they want to get up and running as soon as possible.

Just in case audiences don’t sense that these execs are trouble, Berg plays a trump card, casting John Malkovich as the biggest and wiggiest of BP’s bigwigs and having him deliver all his dialogue in a sneering Cajun drawl. (At least I think it’s a Cajun drawl? His accent’s a little hard to place. He’s either from Louisiana or Mars.) Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine is so pompous, materialistic, and ignorant he might as well be twirling a mustache while wearing a big sign that reads “BAD GUY” around his neck as he reads his lines.

Vidrine serves several important functions in the story. He gives the film a focal point for all its tension until the inevitable disaster strikes. With his big broad accent and sleazebag threats, he also lightens up what’s otherwise a pretty heavy film. Most importantly, the longer Vidrine survives amidst increasingly dire circumstances on the crumbling rig, the more he serves to underline Deepwater Horizon’s theme about the inequity of a system that rewards wealthy rule breakers and punishes working-class employees who try to do the right thing, an idea that resonates far beyond this one particular story in our current economy.

Deepwater Horizon runs a lean 107 minutes, but Berg finds spaces to insert subtle critiques of capitalism’s worst excesses. As the characters all convene on the Horizon, he keeps showing cars, trucks, and helicopters gassing up, a reminder that this frenzied dash to find the next fossil fuel motherlode is done to sate our own insatiable demand for oil. Every shot of an American flag (and there are several) serve a similar purpose: To note that while BP’s executives make convenient scapegoats, they’re not the only ones responsible. From certain angles, Berg’s Deepwater Horizon looks like a microcosm of a reckless country so desperate to sustain itself in the short-term that it’s endangering its long-term stability.

Wahlberg looks and sounds nothing like the real Mike Williams (he doesn’t even try to approximate his Southern accent, thank God), but few modern actors play more convincing working stiffs, and he has several strong scenes with Hudson and Stella Allen as his young daughter. She’s working on a school report on her dad’s job, a clever detail of Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand’s script that doubles as a handy intro to off-shore drilling for unfamiliar viewers. (Her visual aide, a Coke can with a pen jammed in the bottom, promptly explodes, providing as an ominous bit of foreshadowing as well.)

As a director, Berg is known for his brutal action scenes, and while Deepwater Horizon’s second half is full of intense sequences, the film’s first half is just as exciting thanks to the wonderfully uncomfortable dynamics between Wahlberg, Russell, and Malkovich. All three do an impressive job of replicating the false congeniality of an unhappy workplace. The special effects are incredible during the explosion and rescue sequences on the oil rig, but I would have been just as happy watching Russell and Malkovich passive-aggressively argue with each other for two hours.

In recounting a calamity in which real people lost their lives, and in turning that calamity into a big disaster picture, Berg easily could have slipped into exploitation. But none of Deepwater Horizon feels exploitative; even its moments of bombast serve to emphasize the sacrifice these men and women made trying to keep the Deepwater Horizon afloat. Its interpretation of these events differs in some ways from the New York Times report that inspired its screenplay, which suggests the crew was unprepared for a blowout of this magnitude. It also paints Williams as a more central (and more cinematic) hero than the Times’ version. A throwaway line of dialogue mentions that he’s a former Marine, but when the rig begins to collapse, Williams becomes suspiciously fearless in the face of the most terrifying nightmare imaginable, a directorial choice that seems to run counter to the rest of the film’s grounded approach, and its emphasis on everyday heroism.

Berg lays the blame for the Deepwater Horizon at the feet of the BP managers, a decision that puts his film squarely in the tradition of classic disaster movies like The Towering Inferno where materialism and carelessness threatens innocent lives. Recent disaster films like 2012 and San Andreas have expanded the genre’s scope, amassing larger and larger devastation against casts with fewer and fewer three-dimensional characters. Deepwater Horizon reminds us that in these sorts of films — and in real life — the greatest tragedy is the human one.


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