by George Wolf
With a nice throwback vibe, crackling tension and terrific ensemble acting, Deepwater Horizon is a surprisingly compelling package. Director Peter Berg, surpassing his similar work with Lone Survivor three years ago, is again all about making sure a tragic true-life tale is told with proper respect for the heroes involved.
This tragedy was the worst in U.S. oil .drilling history, as the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana in 2010, killing 11 crew members and exposing a scandalous gap in safety protocols from BP.
Berg, armed with a crisp, economical script from Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, introduces us to the souls involved with a rapid succession of quick vignettes from their day, just hours just before boarding the rig. Mike (Mark Wahlberg, as good as he’s ever been) gets frisky with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), while Andrea (Gina Rodriquez from TV’s Jane the Virgin) can’t get her car started and has to hitch a ride to the airport from her boyfriend, and so on.
Snapshots of crew members’ lives crisscross each other, and the film needs minimal screen time to get us invested in multiple personalities. This is a roadblock for scores of films that Berg and his writers sweep away. They give us people to care about, and they increase the chance that events to come will resonate. Extra points for providing helpful primers on drilling practices in ways that feel organic, such as Mike’s daughter rehearsing a classroom presentation.
The tension builds steadily, with a single bubble of air escaping from an undersea drill line, and leads to a spectacularly staged string of explosions that engulf the entire structure. Berg has long shown his skill as a tactician, and here he gets us breathtakingly close to the chaos with an authenticity that’s refreshingly unencumbered by CGI effects.
You may be reminded of more recent movies (especially Wahlberg’s own The Perfect Storm), but Deepwater Horizon has a retro kinship with classic disaster films of the 70s, along with an in-the-moment humanity that salutes the real players whose lives hung in the balance.