Deepwater Horizon is an absolute tour de force of action filmmaking, and one of the most gargantuan physical productions that I’ve ever witnessed on a movie screen. Seeing this film in the IMAX format is a must; the experience is damn near overwhelming. I am predisposed to being interested by true life, topical stories that define our lifetime, and the BP oil spill is one such event. There are any number of ways that one could fashion a story around this monumental disaster, but what director Peter Berg, screenwriters Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, director of photography Enrique Chediak production designer Chris Seagers, and the rest of the insanely committed crew and cast did was put the audience on the middle of an exploding oil rig for nearly an hour, after some very effective character intros coupled with almost unbearable tension building. Berg, a director mainly drawn to projects either based in truth (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) or inspired by the world around us (The Kingdom), has been one of the most continually underrated filmmakers for the last 15 years, inspired by the work of cinematic greats like one-time mentor Michael Mann, Tony Scott, and Michael Bay, and seemingly always hard at work on something new and exciting. Deepwater Horizon has been made on a scale that would make James Cameron blush, and is a testament to heroism, and the idea of sudden, catastrophic loss, and similar to this year’s superb Clint Eastwood film Sully, a study of doing one’s job and doing it extraordinarily well, and in some instances, going above what could ever be expected.
After setting some quick and skillful character introductions into motion during the first 25 minutes, Sand and Carnahan’s script gets right to business, showing the formation of the rig’s various crew members that span multiple companies, with a handful of them being taken away to the station off the Louisiana coast, to commence their work. Ever reliable Mark Wahlberg, who really shines in these types of roles, is our entry point into the story, a rig technician named Mike Williams who experienced first-hand the incompetence being demonstrated by BP officials and other station members. His boss, played with true salt-of-the-earth grittiness by the great Kurt Russell, is revered by the rest of the crew for his commitment to safety; in an ironic twist, on the night of the devastating explosion, he was honored with a corporate safety award by his callous superiors. John Malkovich sports an amazing accent and excels as the chief villain of the piece, Donald Vidrine, a man who clearly could have cared less about anything other than the bottom line and making a profit at any cost. In a sly cameo, Berg even shows up during the first act, as a BP exec who relays important information to his workers under the deafening whirring of helicopter blades; this is a film that nobody at BP is going to appreciate on any level, as it took smart measures to crush them as an organization while still staying focused on the riveting events on board Deepwater Horizon. Gina Rodriguez is also excellent as one of the few women on board; it’s insane to think that anyone survived this event but without her actions and the actions of Harrell and others, the death toll would surely have been higher than 11 souls.
Berg and his team recreated the Deepwater Horizon to 85% scale, and in doing so, produced a film that feels 100% authentic at every turn. Had this film been shot on a closed stage with wrap-around green screens, it would be nowhere near as effective. Whatever CGI that was used has been brilliantly and seamless integrated into each shot; there are so many moments of “How they do that?” movie magic that a second viewing is definitely in order. Chediak’s breathtaking hand-held cinematography is appropriately rough yet extremely coherent, with the camera trying to make sense of the devastation, but no more so than how any member of the crew would have experienced it. The individual acts of heroism are too frequent to list in a review; let’s just say that a huge number of people are still alive because of the sacrifices of a few. And even at a relatively lean 100 minutes, Berg and his screenwriters rather hauntingly suggested at the environmental devastation that took place in one horrifying sequence that will make you cry so long as you have a heart. This is an utterly massive film to take in as a viewer, as the visual are overwhelming in their ferocity and power, and the dialogue took great pains to accurately depict the on-the-job jargon that these people have to spew while operating some extremely dangerous equipment. And the sound work should also be mentioned as it’s truly electrifying, amplifying every moment with extreme intensity. Deepwater Horizon is the sort of film that produces dread one moment, excites the next, crushes you emotionally for a long period, and then sends you out of the theater angry and disturbed by the actions of one of the world’s biggest and most profitable companies. The film is an action masterwork for Berg, and easily one of his grandest, most fully realized pictures to date, and while it might not have the intimacy or societal examination of Friday Night Lights, which for me is still my favorite work of his, it’s the epitome of a “big-screen experience” and it’s not to be missed.