I am trying to recall a disaster film that is as detailed and effective as Deepwater Horizon, and it seems apparent that there aren’t any. The films that come to mind sway heavily into genre territory with emphasis placed on heroism and sentimentality, which are storytelling devices not factored into this gripping true story of the worst oil spill in American history.
The Deepwater Horizon was an oil rig situated in the Gulf of Mexico, 66 kilometres from the American shoreline, which suffered a catastrophic explosion when a geyser of seawater erupted, spewing a high-pressure combination of mud, methane and oil across the platform. The images were broadcast around the globe in 2010 when the incident caught the world’s attention, and the environmental impact continues to this day.
Director Peter Berg, along with writers Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, has approached this story carefully and has considered the narrative thoughtfully. In a smart move, he has played down the hero factor and chosen to focus on the cause and effect of the disaster, with any seepage of romanticism swept to the side to help bookend the story.
Most audiences will have at least a vague understanding of the incident, and so the narrative is fleshed out slowly with a lot of attention to the important details. We are guided through the intricacies of deep sea rigging as we follow the characters throughout their day-to-day procedures and routines, from the crew escort flights to the various levels and facilities within the rig. Some information is conveyed with the use of on-screen text, while the camera’s curious observation chronicles the rest. The film spends its first 45 minutes establishing the rigorous working environment and instils a genuine appreciation for the work and sacrifice that oil riggers put in.
And then it happens. The disaster strikes and the film is thrown into chaos. Thick black oil constantly rains upon the action while enormous eruptions of fire explode across the screen. Alarms sound and solid metal buckles in one of the most gripping and exhilarating 60 minutes I have witnessed on screen in a long time. The action is precise and the cinematography captures every moment without flinching. As people scurry in all directions, the camera is able to find its focus and hones in on the humanity amongst it all.
The cast, featuring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez and Kate Hudson, is excellent. They all offer sincere and well-measured performances, resisting the temptation to upstage one another. And despite my own resistance towards Wahlberg, I can concede that he delivers a remarkable lead performance–possibly the best of his career.
Admittedly, I have never been a fan of Peter Berg as a filmmaker either, although I can certainly appreciate his talent and strong affinity for action. I have felt his films often lack edge and that he aims for style over substance, and so you can imagine my delight in saying that Deepwater Horizon is his opus. He simply nails it and demonstrates a remarkable ability to tell a detailed story that is as equal a spectacle as it is a dramatic statement.
Extraordinary practical effects combined with impressive digital augmentation, strong writing, impeccable direction and a cast of consummate performers makes Deepwater Horizon a rare commodity. An intelligent disaster film that represents its true-life counterpart with respect and integrity.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10