On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, igniting a massive fireball that kills several crew members. Chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and his colleagues now find themselves fighting for survival as the heat and the flames become stifling and overwhelming. Banding together, the co-workers must use their wits to make it out alive amid all the chaos.
There’s a maxim that says clichés are clichés because they are true. Back in the 1970’s we were subjected to a glut of disaster movies ranging from The Poseidon Adventure to The Towering Inferno, a quartet of Airport films and even the (in)famous killer bee misfire The Swarm. In each and every one, a cataclysm faces a disparate group of people and those in charge are found severely wanting (and usually complicit in some way) leading to a blue collar hero or two saving the day. You would have thought that here and now in 2016, such well-trodden and old tropes would have no place on the big screen. But writers Matthew Carnahan and Matthew Sand together with director Peter Berg have done just that and crafted a nail-biting, thoroughly modern, old fashioned movie.
The tale of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is, of course, all true (although BP has come out against the film, citing it as inaccurate; who’d have thought eh?) with the events taking place in the very recent history of 2010. As with all disaster movies, we first spend time getting to know the main characters, principally electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg) an all-American guy with a picture-postcard young family. After some wonderful show-and-tell with Williams’ daughter who delivers a succinct drilling rig 1.01 lesson for the audience, we quickly arrive at the Deepwater just as the required dodgy management is leaving without completing their jobs properly. Or safely. More ineffective, money-over-health-and-safety bosses are still on board, led by the superb John Malkovich as the oily Vidrine (throwing himself completely into both role and accent). We know what’s coming, unlike the hapless workers. It’s just a matter of time.
Also on board are take-no-shit Installation Manager “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (played with the reliable, tough and gruff charm Kurt Russell always gives) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), in charge of rig positioning. As corners are cut, and the writers expertly educate the layman on the basics of blowouts, pressure levels and other drilling rig technical stuff, the inevitable happens and a living hell is unleashed on the platform and the men.
So far, so expected. As is the aftermath of the explosion; some people die, others prove heroes as they sacrifice themselves for their co-workers and the corner-cutting managers are left suitably speechless. Wahlberg and Russell go into the obvious full hero mode and fire and explosions are rained down on them. But it’s all done with such aplomb you’re sucked into it wholesale, forgetting immediately that of course, it’s all green screen with mountains of CGI – you can almost feel the heat and twisting, melting metal.
There’s not a wasted frame here, the 1hr 47min runtime being just enough and not a minute more. Bookended with the real-life inquiry evidence given by Mike Williams also roots it, reminding us before and after that all this happened, that these men did die.
And that’s the only question mark that hangs over it. These events are barely six years old and some have questioned whether it isn’t just a bit too soon for the Hollywood treatment. But Williams himself has said that if even one family member had doubts about it’s authenticity and meaning, permission would not have been given. And at it’s heart, it is a damning polemic on big business and profit over safety, and lives.
Ultimately, there could be some guilt at being so drawn in and – yes – entertained by such a recent tragedy. But as a piece of filmmaking, it’s pretty much perfect, despite being predictable and as old-fashioned as they come. A return to the ensemble, adventure films of your parent’s era? Who’d have thought it possible?