"Deepwater Horizon" (2016): A Disaster Movie That Understands Stakes

By Reid Ramsey (October 6, 2016)
Those who live are scarred and those who die leave behind loved ones. 

Several times a year I see trailers for “True Story” movies that just make me quietly ask myself “Why do we need this?” Because they make money of course. This makes no sense, though because for those who mainly view film as a method of escapism, movies about real events seem counterintuitive; and for those who want realism, why would you want to watch a fictitious dramatization of previously documented events? I even had this experience leading up to “Deepwater Horizon” (2016) when they showed a trailer for a new movie dramatizing the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing (“Patriot’s Day” (2016)), which is in fact directed by the same director as “Deepwater Horizon” (Peter Berg) and starring Mark Wahlberg as well. I went into “Deepwater Horizon” with the previously stated expectations. All that being said, we need “Deepwater Horizon.”

The film follows crew members of the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that became one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time. The crew members board the rig for a 21 day shift when they realize that corners are being cut, and this time more than usual. The BP executives make decisions to move forward in development without double-checking or running safety inspections. Inevitably the main line ruptures and a fire ignites on board. The last act of the film chaotically follows the characters as they attempt to abandon the rig and make it to the life boats.

The most remarkable aspect of the film is the sense of camaraderie on display as the crew members have a certain banter and realism that infringes more on documentary filmmaking than disaster filmmaking. Mike Williams (Wahlberg) is the rig’s handyman and knows the name and face of seemingly every person on board. Berg subtly enforces the realism by having crew members joke and job at each other while focused on their job. 

In some respects though, Berg pays less attention to realism. Brad Leland and John Malkovich play the BP oil executives Kaluza and Vidrine, respectively. The disturbing result portrays these two less as businessman and much more as southern, white slave-owners. For a movie mostly focused on the glorification of men and women at work, these two corner-cutting executives care little about the value of human life. That carelessness bleeds through every frame of “Deepwater Horizon.”

Despite having such harmful villains, “Deepwater Horizon” does not attempt to single out a hero among its cast. The three main protagonists, Williams, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Andre Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), all act heroically; but their heroism and even their doubtful moments exist much more as the point-of-view decision of the filmmaker. 

American disaster movies have a long-honored tradition of the one man overcoming all odds to save the masses. But the claim of a movie such as “Deepwater Horizon” is much more cynical and troubling: with a disaster of this magnitude, no one can win. Those who live are scarred and those who die leave behind loved ones. 

Berg also non-traditionally lets his movie focus on William’s wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson). Felicia and Mike are in the middle of a Skype call when the fire on board the oil rig starts. As participants in the information age, Hudson’s performance smartly presents a troubling fear: not knowing. Instead of frantically crying like this character would do in most movies, Hudson calmly exhausts her resources until she realizes the information is not available. This is Hudson’s most complex performance in years, and yes, it’s in a disaster movie.

“Deepwater Horizon” is not perfect, there are many ways that it bows to the genre rather than subverting it, but it is important. The best aspects make it far more relatable and relevant than most of those movies that will be vying for awards come February.