Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Man-made disasters are particularly horrifying because they are eminently avoidable. This was clearly the case with the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, where corporate meddling led to the deaths of multiple members of the crew. The kicker, as director Peter Berg’s DEEPWATER HORIZON shows, is that it was 100% preventable. Berg takes us on an intense, heartbreaking, emotionally gripping, harrowing ride that’s not only a fitting tribute to the intelligence and compassion of those heroes, but also a searing indictment of oil giant BP. You’ll probably want to flip a few tables after.
It’s an absolute blessing the narrative isn’t needlessly convoluted. It’s pretty cut and dried. Devoted family man Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is the chief electronics technician aboard Transocean’s rig. As explained by his daughter’s literal show-and-tell framing device, he and other crew members are responsible for the hardest part of the drilling for oil job – the set-up which basically pokes a hole in the ocean floor, relieving the pressure of oil buildup underneath. There are numerous protocols the team goes through every time before the drilling even begins. However, a perfect storm (pun intended) of proceedings led to the massively devastating emotional and ecological events on April 20th, 2010. BP rushed through the necessary checks and balances to fit their corporate agenda, ignoring all the red flags raised along the way, leading to a blowout, a raging fire and a practically unstoppable ocean floor oil leak.
The heroic actions of these men are awe-inspiring. It’s infuriating these capable workers weren’t allowed to do their jobs by those who hired them to get it done. Short-sighted shortcuts plague our current world, and the filmmakers illustrate this perfectly. The way Berg captures the harrowing events made me squirm in my seat and my palms sweat. He, along with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, earns high marks for immersing us into this world. Once the mud starts a’flowin’ is where things ramp up action-wise. It’s quite the spectacle, not only from a visual and special effects standpoint, but an auditory one as well. Courtesy of the tremendous sound design team, rivets, glass and debris whiz by you – so much so you almost feel the air brush against your ears, instinctually ducking to take cover. Fire glowing from the screen feels scorching as the burning cauldron grows hotter.
While this is a very well-acted piece (with the exception of John Malkovich’s corrupt Southern lawyer-esque portrayal of an authoritative BP businessman), characters are a little light on development. Yes, we’re still emotionally impacted by the peril, stress and anguish they face, but it’s just not a very hearty entrée on this film’s plate. It also fails to give the audience any avenues to channel their post-screening outrage, imparting a helpless feeling. Have fail-safes been enacted in the years since so this can never happen again? Is Berg’s art a way to make sure they are? I’m not sure.
Hearing Mike’s testimony at the beginning sorta lets the cat out of the bag early that he survives. Although people (like me) who haven’t read the Wikipedia page won’t know who else survives, it’s disappointing the filmmakers felt they had to lead with an unnecessary attention grabber. The conditions Deepwater’s crew members are up against (43 days behind schedule, millions in the hole, and lacking crucial cement tests) is explained multiple times when once would have sufficed. Plus, Berg recycles a few of his LONE SURVIVOR techniques here where I would’ve liked to see him do something innovative (like with the end credits, for example).
Despite it creating some sludge, this is a “god whisper” of a film – a warning of the genuinely high costs of deep sea drilling.
DEEPWATER HORIZON opens on September 30.