Mark Reviews Movies

Deepwater Horizon


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Berg

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Dylan O'Brien, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee, Joe Chrest, Robert Walker Branchaud, J.D. Evermore, Brad Leland, Henry Frost

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 9/30/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 29, 2016

"Anything that big ought to be built by God," an oil company representative says upon his first view of the 320-foot-tall, 367-foot-long drilling rig—a veritable skyscraper of a vessel 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a statement of awe in the dictionary-definition sense of the word—not just wonder but also a certain degree of fear. Deepwater Horizon suggests that a similar sense of awe could have been beneficial to the way the company and its corporate partners went about drilling for oil.

As presented and explicitly stated here, the operation is a collection of various moving parts—this rig and others, ships bringing supplies to and taking waste away from those rigs, helicopters transporting personnel to and from the rigs, teams of assorted sizes and with a range of tasks necessary for everything to work. It's like a body with dozens of hands, and not a single one of those hands knows what the others are doing.

At the top of that body is the figurative head of the oil company, with its mind always viewing the best way to operate as the one that gives it the highest possible profit. The company could, for example, run a test that would ensure that the cement around the Horizon's oil pipe had been poured properly. It would cost about $150,000 to run that test. In the view of chief electrician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), that amount isn't much for a company that Mike believes is worth $180 billion. Not running the test, counters a supervisor for BP named Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), is the reason the company is actually worth $186 billion.

Director Peter Berg's film makes it clear that there were two failings that led to the destruction of the Horizon: technological and corporate. After introducing us to the story's central characters, the first act of Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand's screenplay (based on a New York Times article by David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul) details the abundant flaws within this corporate bureaucracy.

Mike arrives at the Horizon with Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the rig's chief manager, and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), one of the vessel's navigators, to discover that the cementing crew is leaving ahead of schedule. Berg follows Mike and Jimmy as they try to find out why. The sequence efficiently serves a dual purpose: It gives us a basic layout of the rig while showing that none of these teams can effectively communicate with each other, because all of them work in their own bubble of corporate orders.

"I don't know" is the most common answer offered whenever Jimmy, whom the BP guys present with an award for safety in order to get him out of the way so they can make the orders, asks about the cement job. A thinly veiled threat is the most common response from Vidrine whenever someone points out that the pressure readouts on the two pipes going from the rig to the sea floor don't—but should—match. The one pressure reading they do have is far too high.

The camera makes its way down the length of pipe. It watches as tiny cracks in the cement surrounding the blowout protector release bubbles toward the surface, until the cracks grow larger and the bubbles become more concentrated. Berg even takes us inside the two pipes while pressure tests run, so that we can see the way fluid flows through one of those pipes and doesn't—creating a blockage and an inaccurate pressure reading—in the other.

In the first act, the screenplay is filled with industry-specific jargon as the characters debate whether to follow their bosses' greed-motivated, technically unaware orders. When it comes to explaining how the rig's technology failed, though, Berg presents a visual anatomy of the impending disaster (with a few dire mentions that the pressure in one of the pipes is strong enough to slice a car in half). We may not be able to put the myriad of specific failures into words, but there's never any doubt about what is happening and why it is happening (A demonstration involving a can of soda near the beginning of the film is, thankfully, more helpful than cute).

The rest of the film dramatizes the confusion and chaos of the blowout, the seepage of oil into the water and methane gas throughout the rig, the resulting explosion, the uncontrollable fire that spread, and the steady collapse of the vessel's structures. Once the initial blowout of drilling fluid and, eventually, oil occurs on the deck, Berg isn't so concerned with the rig's layout. That is, perhaps, the correct choice, since it mirrors the experience of the people onboard the Horizon. Everything happens too quickly. Other than the people who witness the first event, no one is aware of the imminent devastation, since the rig's alarm system isn't triggered until everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Mike is on a video call with his wife (Kate Hudson). Jimmy is in the shower.

The destruction is sudden and nearly constant. The buildup of pressure throughout the vessel shoots debris—shards of metal and glass—in every direction. Eruptions of water send crewmembers flying like ragdolls, and bursts of flame engulf compartments without warning. Even with all of this happening, the weight of corporate pressure stops potentially life-saving measures from being taken, if only because the previous threats make a few members of the crew think twice before doing something without a direct order.

The film ends with the trials of the crew, only hinting at the ecological devastation and political fallout that followed, but such things are not the point. Deepwater Horizon succeeds as a point-by-point autopsy of the corporate greed and technological weaknesses that led to disaster.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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