WASHINGTON — It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
On April 20, 2010, an underwater geyser erupted beneath the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, sparking an explosion that killed 11 people and a massive oil leak that took 87 days to plug.
Now, the event is explored in the new film “Deepwater Horizon,” a title so tailor-made for a disaster flick that it’d only be topped if “The Towering Inferno” were based on a real tower called The Inferno.
Despite the warnings of seasoned rig crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), BP PLC exec Vidrine (John Malkovich) cuts corners on safety inspections, leaving the Deepwater Horizon oil rig a sitting duck for a drilling disaster. Upon the explosion, electronic technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) cuts his Skype call short with his wife (Kate Hudson) to become a true hero saving lives on board.
By now, Wahlberg has proved himself the perfect person to play this roughneck role. After his movie breakthrough as porn star Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights” (1997), Marky Mark has become a trusty blue-collar everyman, earning a pair of Oscar nominations across his roles in “The Perfect Storm” (2000), “The Departed” (2006), “The Fighter” (2010), “Ted” (2012) and “Lone Survivor” (2013).
The lattermost is closest to his “Deepwater” role, not only because it was also directed by Peter Berg, but because rig worker Mike Williams demonstrates the same blood-and-guts determination to save his band of brothers as Marcus Latrell did across the jagged rocks of Afghanistan in “Lone Survivor.”
He is an authentic action hero, avoiding an overly-groomed persona necessary to pull off the grunt work, but also not too massive a body builder like his “Pain and Gain” co-star The Rock. In short, he’s one of us. Thus, his best scenes come at home before the blast, using a Coke can for foreshadowing with his daughter (Stella Allen) or flirting playfully between the sheets with his wife (Kate Hudson).
It’s only fitting that Hudson’s real-life stepfather Kurt Russell play Williams’ crew chief on the rig, as if Hudson is handing her hubbie to a trusted father figure for safe keeping. When the opposite happens, it’s easy for us to hate John Malkovich’s BP villain, whose every glare bleeds Cajun corruption. Some may argue his mathematical jargon drags out Act One, but Malkovich’s dry-erase-board drawings are a necessary slow-burn that makes the action feel that much more horrific once it finally arrives.
And arrive it does.
Just as James Cameron was called in for advice on plugging the real-life leak in 2010 — having himself developed a passion for deepwater exploration after directing “The Abyss” (1989) and “Titanic” (1997) — you’ll think of his sinking ocean liner here as poor bodies clank off the doomed vessel.
Forget “icebergs,” this time you’ll want to shout “Peter Berg right ahead!” as the high-octane director delivers intense, realistic action that’s not for the weak of heart. If you’re at all squeamish at the sight of graphic wounds, you might want to watch through parted fingers. Bones crunch here with the grisly regularity of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), or more accurately, Berg’s own “Lone Survivor.”
It’s a visceral presentation by Berg, who continues the shaky, quick-cut, cinéma-vérité style he burst onto the scene with in “Friday Night Lights” (2004). After sinking the blockbuster board-game flop “Battleship” (2012), Berg has thankfully recovered in recent years to find his gritty action footing, as “Deepwater Horizon” may even top “Lone Survivor” as a piece of carefully chaotic visual filmmaking.
Unfortunately, Berg’s direction is nautical miles ahead of his screenwriters here. The script starts promising with snappy dialogue on land, but it gradually takes on water for its lack of narrative depth as the rig begins exploding. It never drills down deep into the characters — it’s all survival instincts — leaving larger, more interesting social themes dangling as unaddressed questions on the horizon.
When Emmy winner Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) chokes up after the ordeal and says, “Thank you,” we don’t really feel it because she hasn’t been on screen enough with enough back story for us to care. Even Michael Bay mined more emotion as oil driller Bruce Willis swapped places with Ben Affleck to say, “We win, Gracie,” as he detonated the nuke on the asteroid in “Armageddon” (1998).
While “Deep Horizon” boasts similar survival action, writers Matthew Sand (“Ninja Assassin”) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (“World War Z”) could have gone further to show the aftermath, which became a national incident. After all, the real drama of this disastrous event was the three-month effort to plug the underwater gusher, which spewed oil into the Gulf for an unconscionable 87 days!
After Clint Eastwood’s masterful handling of a different real-life disaster and its aftermath in “Sully” (2016), “Deepwater Horizon” feels small in scope by comparison. It’s wild how much film criticism hinges on the timing of release dates. “Deepwater Horizon” suffers from its proximity to “Sully” just like the journalism drama “Truth” suffered from “Spotlight” comparisons in last year’s Oscar race.
In the end, “Horizon” is too content being a simple survival tale, which is cool for two hours, but rings a bit hollow and leaves us wanting more by way of context. The story is so straightforward as to feel predictable, a dangerous event trapped in a safe script, rigged with inevitability. The film checks all the disaster-flick boxes but surprises us with very little and rarely asks active viewers to engage.
So while it’s a fine tribute to the brave rig workers who banded together on that fateful day, you’ll walk out feeling like it missed the boat on the bigger picture. There’s a more thoughtful movie to be made here, a missed opportunity found in a solitary shot of an oil-soaked bird flapping on the deck.
This rating is on a four-star scale. See where the movie ranks among the year’s best in our Fraley Film Guide.