Mention Deepwater Horizon to friends or co-workers and they’ll likely frown and ask “What?” But reference the BP oil spill of 2010, and you’re bound to get a vitriolic mouthful — and for good reason. When reports trickled out about the oil rig’s fiery demise, media networks quickly inundated America with reports about the gallons of oil that was surging into the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster that would carry on from April until the middle of July, resulting in the largest ever oil spill in United States waters. As millions scoffed and shook their head in disgust at BP’s utter recklessness, many failed to recognize that 126 unlucky crew members were on board the vessel and only seven were actual employees of BP and that 11 perished in flames.
That’s the tragedy Peter Berg captures in his latest historical drama, Deepwater Horizon. Starring a who’s who of veteran actors, from Mark Wahlberg to Kurt Russell, John Malkovich to Kate Hudson, the disaster thriller follows the lives of multiple Transocean engineers, technicians, and crew members who were tasked to do the impossible when the impossible fell into their lap on April 20, 2010. Working off a muscular script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, who adapted the story from an in-depth report by The New York Times, Berg once again astonishes with his eye for non-fiction narratives, leaning on his intimate documentary-style filmmaking that he trademarked with 2004’s Friday Night Lights and 2013’s Lone Survivor.
Similar to those two films, Berg offers a visceral experience that overwhelms with startling humanity. There’s so much heart at hand without any of the obvious cheese that lesser-than filmmakers might plate for their audiences. Instead, he allows every character to naturally come to life and mostly through subtle interactions; for instance, one early scene finds Wahlberg’s Mike Williams walking through the rig and casually ribbing his dozens of co-workers. The electrician’s breezy cadence makes the proceedings seem almost superfluous, but it’s actually a proper tour for the audience to understand the ins and outs of the Deepwater Horizon. And rest assured, this is a complicated affair to translate for mainstream audiences.
Which is one the reasons why Berg’s such a perfect fit for this story. A longtime admirer of veteran filmmaker Michael Mann, who produced his 2007 action-political thriller The Kingdom, Berg has similarly been a champion of detail-oriented filmmaking, tackling each subject with magnifying glasses and unpacking it with the utmost accessibility. It’s why people who hate football could fall in love with Friday Night Lights — both the feature-film and NBC’s following TV series. With Deepwater Horizon, he lays out the messy physics and critical engineering without being too pedantic or resorting to dusty blueprints. Sure, the Coke metaphor in the beginning feels a tad on-the-nose, but the rest of the film glides by with agreeable exposition.
Much of this is masked by the film’s palpable sense of tension, one that builds and swelters in conjunction with the eventual underwater explosion. At times, Berg cribs from Roland Emmerich’s Book of Foreshadowing, thanks to magenta ties and seemingly throwaway lines, but it’s never too distracting. Besides, all of that’s forgotten when the proverbial shit hits the fan and chaos ensues. Using a manic concoction of piercing audio, practical effects, and brazen CGI, Berg chucks his viewers into a visceral experience that’s inescapable with its blend of terror and magnificence. However, it’s the struggle that makes it so essential and everyone gives it their all, especially Wahlberg, Russell, Gina Rodriguez, and Dylan O’Brien.
None of it’s fun, though; this isn’t a rollercoaster, it’s more like an assault. Berg’s so unflinching with his direction, refusing to let go from the melting destruction and glass-riddled body horror, that it’s impossible to dig into the popcorn with wild eyes and baited breath. No, you’re more likely to cringe, cower, or shield your eyes at what’s happening — no different than Steven Spielberg’s unforgiving opening to Saving Private Ryan. But, that seems to be the point of Deepwater Horizon: Berg wants to scare his audiences, he wants them to feel pain. After all, those feelings eventually congregate and start to ask questions like: Why did this have to happen? Who’s to blame? What justice took place? The next gasps come from learning the answers.
Lately, it’s admittedly been somewhat jarring to see biopics of all-too-recent historical events, whether it’s Clint Eastwood revisiting the Miracle on the Hudson with this month’s Sully or Oliver Stone’s latest political statement on government surveillance with Snowden. Some historians might argue there’s a certain cognitive dissonance at hand from wrestling with source material so fresh, others might argue the opposite — both are probably right. At their best, however, these films strive to tell a side of a well-trodden story that may or may not reveal certain truths that have cruelly been marginalized. The difference with Deepwater Horizon is how it’s a commemoration for the victims who never had the chance to tell them.
For that alone, it’s a success.