2010’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was one of the biggest news stories of the year. An environmental catastrophe that led to calls for criminal charges against BP executives, it dominated headlines with nightmarish pictures of the aftermath. Largely forgotten about in this news cycle, however, was the immediate human cost. 11 men were killed during the disaster on Deepwater Horizon, and it’s this story that Peter Berg tells so spectacularly in his latest. Balancing a likable and believable set of characters with nerve-shredding action beats, Deepwater Horizon is one of 2016’s very best films, and certainly the year’s most pleasant surprise.
One might not expect Berg, the man behind the atrocious Battleship and the good-not-great Lone Survivor, to have knocked this one so far out of the park. Yet, in dedicating the first half of the film to slow-burn character work before letting the pyrotechnics loose, he ensures that you feel real distress once the rig comes crashing down. Matthew Carnahan and Matthew Sand’s script does a great job of crafting a group of real friends before bringing disaster down upon their heads, and it’s fun to see a film so open in its contempt for the corporate stooges whose meddling led to the infamous events.
Headed up by John Malkovich giving a particularly slimy performance as company man Vidrin, the BP execs immediately come into conflict with site supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), known to his loyal crew as Mr Jimmy. Though Jimmy may be in charge during the build-up, once the rig starts blowing up, it’s Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) who leads the way. With his mantra of ‘stay calm, breathe’, he keeps as much order as possible in the face of impossible odds. Other characters, like Dylan O’Brien’s handyman and rig pilot Andrea (Gina Rodriguez), are given less substantial screen time, but no less care is taken in fleshing them out as real people.
The whole ensemble does a superb job of creating lived-in friendships, and their commitment to the oil rig jargon, whilst initially slightly disorienting, essentially forces you to learn the rules of their world as you watch. You might not quite notice it happening, but it means that you feel as close to being a member of the crew as is possible, absolutely vital in selling the true impact of the bombastic events of the film’s disaster portion.
What’s most amazing is the way that, with all this groundwork laid, the numerous flaws of Deepwater Horizon feel so completely insignificant next to all it does right. Foreshadowing is hilariously obvious, and everything in the film lacks for subtlety, but with this much raw power in its locker, the emotional impact wipes away all these nitpicks. A scene towards the end where the full weight of the catastrophe falls on Williams’ shoulders is genuinely devastating, and Wahlberg sells it absolutely, the centrepiece of one of his best performances yet. He’s made a solid career of playing everyman heroes, and Deepwater provides one of the richest roles of this ilk, filled with moments of staggering but grounded bravery from the whole crew.
Berg’s action credentials are well proved by this point, and his direction of the collapse of the rig is breathlessly thrilling. Each explosion knocks the wind out of you, and Berg keeps the impact of each bang varied enough that fatigue never sets in. A series of CG shots of the ocean floor and the interior of the roaring machinery of the rig are often pretty abstract, but convey a sense of terrifying power nonetheless. Labourers aboard the rig consistently label the Deepwater drilling process ‘the well from hell’, which proves more than apt as we see the entire thing go up in unquenchable flames that even burn the sea. An American flag burns, the BP execs crumble in the face of what looks like the wrath of God, and the crew turns to prayer in its darkest hour, yet none of these moments feel corny, instead totally earned by a rich script, detailed performances, and skin-prickling action. My most unexpected 5 star film of the year, I hope Deepwater Horizon manages to earn the box office and awards attention that it so thoroughly deserves.