Bleak, thrilling “Deepwater Horizon” honors real-life heroes

Penn Harrison

Peter Berg opens “Deepwater Horizon” a mile beneath the sea, where mounting oil pressure threatens to rupture the rig’s base. Berg only builds the cinematic pressure from there. 

“Deepwater Horizon” is his second collaboration with actor Mark Wahlberg, after 2013’s riveting “Lone Survivor.” Both films portray real-life catastrophes, and in both, Wahlberg plays a heroic everyman. In “Deepwater Horizon,” he’s Mike Williams, a blue-collar electrician, ex-Marine and family man determined to bring home a dinosaur tooth for his daughter. He’s easy to root for — humble and intelligent the first half, and predictably, a valiant action hero in the second.

By contrast, John Malkovich excels as a profit-hungry BP executive who lets engineers leave the rig without performing a pressure test. Officers Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) realize the danger in this negligent shortcut. As they scramble to conduct the test, the supporting cast thrives with chemistry and humor, keeping the human element afloat amid the script’s overabundance of engineering jargon. When the crew unites in a fight for their lives, their transition from concerned workers to panicked survivors is credible and harrowing.  

If audiences can accept Berg’s heavy-handed style, they’ll devour the foreshadowing throughout the film’s first half. Williams’ daughter builds an “oil rig” from a Coke can and straw and the Coke explodes. Williams, Fleytas and Harrell’s helicopter strikes a bird over open water. When they land on the rig, Berg’s subtitles remind us the rig floats, all too precariously, a mile above the ocean floor. 

When the pressure reaches a breaking point, Berg delivers the same bone-crunching intensity he brought to “Lone Survivor.” Oil slams workers against walls and pours into their lungs. Collapsing doors and smashing glass break bones and slice skin. Fire scalds the faces fleeing the rig. Berg gives no time to blink, let alone breathe. 

In the fiery chaos, Wahlberg’s character embodies the best of the men and women onboard — brave under fire and unafraid to risk their lives for others. Through Williams, Berg reveres the real-life heroes of a disaster so destructive it’s dumbfounding only 11 people perished. Berg’s camera keeps his audience like his characters: dazed, disoriented and uncomfortably close to the inferno. Shot on an 85 percent scale model of the actual Deepwater Horizon rig, the combined CGI and set is its most credible as it comes crashing down. In the wake of the firestorm, Berg sugarcoats nothing, simply presenting the facts: It was the worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl, and BP executives were singlehandedly responsible. It’s all the more powerful Berg forgoes sentiment — his ending is open-ended, inconclusive and infuriating. 

“Deepwater Horizon” isn’t perfect. Wahlberg’s family is underdeveloped, and Berg’s introduction of other early characters feels forced. The entire plot flies by, as though he refuses to linger on any particular moment long enough for us to take it in. But “Deepwater Horizon” soars as a tribute to blue-collar workers who do their humble, daily parts to advance the greater good. Above all, it assures viewers that on April 20, 2010, injustice was done. 

“Deepwater Horizon”
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 107 minutes
Score: 4/5