THE DECISION BY director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Hancock) to recreate an 85% scale facsimile of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig (it took eighty five welders eight months to weld it all together) was a brilliant one. There’s an authenticity and a frightening immediacy to the movie that’s a high-water mark of cinema craftsmanship (and one of the best disaster movies ever)
This is of course the movie version of the tragic blow out in the Gulf of Mexico… that resulted in a loss of eleven lives, a spillage of 3 million barrels of oil in the gulf and a £62B bill for BP. “Beyond Petroleum” indeed.
The movie centres on – real life – Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the popular head maintenance engineer on the rig… and an ideal role for blue-collar everyman, Wahlberg. Mike, like his boss Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and various other experienced rig crewmen have an uneasy feeling about things from the get-go. Core safety procedures are being bypassed by BP, in the person of a Mr. Vidrine (a sleazy scheming John Malkovich), intent on saving time and money; and indifferent to the hazards their shortcuts pose. Realistically, Mike is no rebel. He’s worried about the risks being taken, but the murky chain of command allows pretty much everyone an escape valve (no-one was prosecuted for the disaster). Mike simply keeps his head down, mutters his concerns and gets on with his job.
Though the happy-happy scenes of him and wife (Kate Hudson…Kurt’s real-life daughter) are corny and unreal, by and large, the pre-disaster drama is skillfully handled. Writers Matthew Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) weave the macho banter of the rig crew and the technical discussions about bore pressures and what have you with what seems to be a real ear for the balance between the personal and the professional. Scenes of massive pipes being connected and multiple underwater shots of the three miles of pipe descending into the murky depths of the gulf deliver both veracity and a feeling of dread. It’s old fashioned movie craft that when you introduce a gun in the first scene, somebody’s going to get shot in the second or third. So too, the initial almost fetishised images of the rig (which is actually a vessel) as a massive impregnable steel erection (pun intended) simply foreshadow its fragility once things go awry.
Berg’s version of the story omits all those troubling details about Halliburton’ incompetence and simplifies things to a binary storyline: good, responsible Americans who manage the Transoceanic-owned rig have their better judgments countermanded by the henchmen of the irresponsible Brits (BP: the rig’s Client) ever ready to put profit over process.
This simplification was probably less about chest thumping jingoism and more about centering the drama on the fight to survive and less on the politics of the industry. And what a fight to survive it is. For in the end, the tug o war between Transoceanic and BP is small potatoes compared with the almost Biblical vengeance unleashed when built-up pressures explode in an Armageddon of mud, explosions, thundering noise, flying projectiles and falling cranes. The once so cocky humans now running, dodging and scampering for their lives is heart-stopping movie making.
You can almost feel the heat.
But it’s not just Berg’s terrific visual direction that delivers the punch, it’s Harry Cohen’s (The Hateful Eight) superb sound design – of the rig’s mechanical clanking; the otherworldly sounds of the deep water; the hisses of the fire etc. – that helps make it all so tangibly and nerve-tinglingly real.
Berg also allows us to feel for Wahlberg’s character, who is both (the expected) fearless hero and, at the end of it all, a very ‘unheroic’ quivering mess. Mark Wahlberg has never been an actor capable of exuding a lot of emotional nuance, but here, near the end, his anguish is almost touching; unexpected in such a testosterone-fuelled movie.
To Berg, the morale to this story is more to do with the necessity to follow procedures at all times even at the expense of profit. But to me, there’s a deeper question we must ponder: deep water drilling, fracking, nuclear power, genetically modified agriculture…what could possible go wrong?
Deepwater Horizon: Dir: Peter Berg. With: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson. Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak (“The Maze Runner”). Editors: Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr.