Disaster pictures generally fall into the category of “guilty pleasures” because they appeal to morbid curiosity about other peoples’ misfortunes along with a love of spectacle and sensation. The mechanism works a little differently in Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon. Although we wait in expectation for the horrors to begin — it’s why we’re there, after all — the death and destruction make you cry out with rage.
For many reasons, it’s important to see exactly what went down in April 2010 on the Deepwater Horizon, a semisubmersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit 40 miles from the coast of Louisiana. Eleven people died, a score more were gravely injured, and the ecosystem of the Gulf Coast was devastated: How the hell did it happen? The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand closely follows the trajectory that was laid out in a superb New York Times feature by David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul: a step-by-step look at How Things Worked to create one of the United States’ most profound environmental catastrophes. If you learned from unscrupulous politicians (or Clint Eastwood, via Sully) that regulatory agencies exist to bring down heroes, watch what happens to heroes when a corporation like BP runs roughshod over regulators that have been rendered toothless. It’s an inferno.
That’s not to say that Deepwater Horizon is a “docudrama.” It opens with a snatch of real congressional testimony, but a lot of it is pure Hollywood. After a prologue near the ocean floor — three and a half miles down — in which a team from Halliburton (it’s everywhere) fails to set a cement plug, Berg cuts to the bedroom and breakfast table of the adorable Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), his adorable blonde wife (Kate Hudson), and their adorable blonde daughter (Stella Allen). The adorableness is harnessed brilliantly when the little girl rehearses a presentation for her class on what her father does when he’s on a semisubmersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit. We get a good lesson with a great punch line: The girl stabs a pencil into a can of Coke (egregious product placement!) to demonstrate how the pressure inside is equalized. A few minutes later, the can explodes. A bit after that, a BP exec en route to the rig is asked to remove his tie — it’s magenta, an unlucky color. Then there’s a bird strike on the chopper carrying Mike, “Mr.” Jimmy (Kurt Russell), and two BP reps on a mission to pressure the crew to work faster. Nearly everyone who comes aboard looks on edge. The disaster is foreshadowed and then some.
As the men above (there are 126) joke and argue and worry aloud about the state of the rig, Berg’s camera plunges into the water and down down down to the bottom, where the mud is palpating, heaving, as if there’s a monster ready to burst from the under the Earth’s crust. Up top, we can barely hear the conversations for the clanks, metallic groaning, and subterranean booms. The sound guys pulled out the stops on this one.
The embodiment of manly proficiency is Russell’s Mr. Jimmy, with his full head of hair swept up and mutton-chop 'stache, the better to distinguish him from Vidrine, the embodiment of blind capitalism, played by bald-domed, smooth-cheeked weirdo John Malkovich with a Cajun accent that sounds like a voodoo remix of a Texas oil man’s drawl. Wahlberg’s Mike listens to Vidrine explain the BP policy (“We a big company, Mike”) and responds with a metaphor about catfish that I didn’t quite get but that stops Vidrine cold. When Mr. Jimmy stops work to test the drill line, the pressure is in the red, but no mud bubbles up: most peculiar. He goes off to another part of the ship to accept — weirdly — some kind of BP safety award while Vidrine yells at the men to get going. The camera plunges down down down and that seabed is really heaving now, with mud and bolts popping up. Mr. Jimmy takes a shower. Mike calls his wife.
The hell that breaks loose isn’t quick. There’s a lot of “hmmmms” and “uh-ohs” as mud spills over, the rig begins to shake, and then, alas, the oil arrives. By the standards of, say, San Andreas, in which L.A. and San Francisco disintegrate, what happens aboard the Deepwater Horizon is contained. But every burst of steam and lethal debris, every burn and laceration, feels momentous, because these were real people trying to stop something that we know with hindsight was inevitable. Berg puts you right in the middle of a melee in which almost everyone is disoriented — there’s no manual for this. Mr. Jimmy, cut to ribbons and blinded by shards of glass, is barely able to haul himself around. Some of the men who took initiative — who knew that they were all that stood between them and a volcanic explosion — didn’t get off the Deepwater Horizon alive.
I don’t know what Berg and the screenwriters were thinking when they decided periodically to cut away from the action to Kate Hudson phoning the Coast Guard and various wives. They don’t need to remind us that the people onboard had families who waited in agony for news of loved ones — or not like this, anyway. Maybe they thought they needed to beef up Hudson’s part, but they should have saved her for the final scenes, when we do need her character to help put things right.
Put things right — hah, that’s a good one. My only serious complaint about Deepwater Horizon is that it’s not quite the muckraker I’d hoped for. The BP executives are depicted as both ruthless and clueless, but the film only hints at a record of safety violations that dwarfed every other fossil-fuel company in the region and a culture that made sensible caution a firing offense. Although BP learned the lesson of how not to respond from Exxon’s arrogance in the aftermath of the Valdez spill, the CEO, Tony Hayward, maintained that the amount of oil dumped into the Gulf was “relatively tiny” and then went yachting. Shortly before resigning, he said, “You know, I’d like my life back.” He got it back plus a fat check — but the impact on the health and livelihoods of those he left behind is incalculable. When President Obama criticized BP and vowed to make the company compensate Gulf residents, Rand Paul called him “anti-business” and “un-American.”
Yes, I wish there had been a hint of all that in the film. It’s very moving when the survivors, lit by the flames of the Deepwater Horizon, drop to their knees and recite the Lord’s Prayer. But along with our God who art in heaven, I wish they had beseeched our government, which art on Earth to ensure that something this monstrous never happens again.