If you haven’t heard of Deepwater Horizon the movie, you’ve come to the right place. If you haven’t heard of Deepwater Horizon the oil rig, you might have heard of the 2010 BP Oil Spill, when 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. That happened because the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. This movie tells the story of the people who risked their lives to save others during the tragedy.
The first time we see the oil rig on which most of Deepwater Horizon takes place, the usual descriptions flash on screen: the name of the rig, the date of the workers’ arrival, how many miles off of the coast it is. But the film also decides to tell us how many workers are on the rig, basically telling us before the events even kick in that not all of those people are going to make it out alive.
This is just one of numerous times that Deepwater Horizon breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule of screenwriting. At the beginning, the main character’s daughter literally reads his job description aloud to prepare for a conveniently timed school project. But when Deepwater Horizon isn’t doing a lot of telling, it’s showing with powerful force.
The opening stages of the film are quite on the nose. Mike William’s (Mark Wahlberg) wife and daughter are routinely paraded around so we have an emotional connection early on; there are blatant visual metaphors for explosions; oil rig workers and wealthy BP executives have arguments that handily explain exactly how things will go wrong later. But when the oil hits the fan, these complaints seem insignificant compared to the eruption of fury and valor that the film becomes.
Before I even mention the human heroics, there’s a far more enthralling center to the film: the flaming oil rig itself. Deepwater Horizon is a masterwork of sound design and visual effects. It’s rare that a film’s setting so seamlessly draws us in and traps us in the danger.
The sound design captures and emphasizes every individual sinew and piece of machinery that collapses on the Deepwater Horizon, shoving us into the fires and blasts with tangible intensity. The complementary visual effects are equally spectacular. Altogether, the film immerses us in the breathtaking physicality of the surrounding destruction: it’s bone-crushingly loud and shocking in its realness. This is undoubtedly a movie that should be experienced through the biggest screen and speakers possible.
And of course, Deepwater Horizon’s purported primary reason for existence is to honor the brave workers that salvaged human life from the disaster. Director Peter Berg is no stranger to honoring war heroes, but his work is usually held back by his brand of overindulgence: the unbridled patriotism of Lone Survivor, the unrestrained stupidity of Battleship. Here he embraces the effectiveness of the everyman though: Deepwater Horizon is emotionally resonant because its heroes are just like us and the film doesn’t make a big deal about it. The direction gives an unflinching depiction of their courage and successfully avoids hero worship (until the last couple minutes).
In the same vein, Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell’s performances are nothing special in the best of ways. They come off as unremarkable oil rig workers doing remarkable things, not movie stars. Gina Rodriguez exudes similar humanity, but the overdramatic dialogue occasionally gets the best of her. John Malkovich especially shines as greedy BP executive Donald Vidrine, whose negligence and thirst for quick money sets off the disaster. Malkovich earns more disgust than Vidrine received in real life.
Alfred Hitchcock — the master of cinematic suspense — once described suspense as two people having a conversation at a table that the audience knows a bomb is hidden under. Deepwater Horizon, though written with zero subtlety, achieves pitch perfect suspense even as the bomb continues to go off.
★★★★ (4 out of 5)