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Deepwater Horizon

by Glenn Erickson Dec 27, 2016

Does your memory go as far back as 2010, or have too many catastrophes and cataclysms blurred your vision? Peter Berg’s tense account of the BP Gulf Oil Spill debacle covers twenty hours of technological peril, as Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell battle idiotic executives and a badly-cemented oil well that’s fixing to blow sky high — and to turn a massive floating oil rig into a hellish inferno.

Deepwater Horizon
Blu-ray + DVD
2016 / Color / 2:35 1:85 widescreen 1:37 flat full frame / 97 min. / Street Date January 10, 2016 / 39.99
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, David Maldonado, Kate Hudson, Brad Leland.
Enriqaue Chediak
Film Editors Gabriel Fleming, Colby Parker Jr.
Original Music Steve Jablonsky
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand from an article by David Rohde, Stephanie Saul
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian, Mark Wahlberg, David Womark
Directed by Peter Berg

What a depressing century we’ve had so far. One of the worst TV ordeals was in 2010, when it seemed that every night we’d turn on the TV news to the same image: a ruptured deep-sea well spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Then the misery began — years of litigation and fines, and claims that mandated cleanups by BP were being sidestepped or short-changed while the company laid on dozens of million-dollar TV ads to tout themselves as environmentally responsible. Have any of the criminal charges reached a courtroom, even now? The media dropped the story a long time ago.


2016’s Deepwater Horizon went through four years of troubled pre-production. It changed directors, writers and even a distributor but has ended up a film that tells a complicated story with skill and economy. It recounts the day before and the night after the catastrophic oil rig disaster in the Gulf that claimed eleven lives. Transocean technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) bids goodbye to his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter for a 21-day stint on the Deepwater Horizon, Transocean’s oil drilling ship about a hundred miles off the Louisiana coast. With him is The crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell).  When they arrive they are surprised to see that the previous crew is going home without conducting a pressure test. BP exec Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) has decided to bypass the safety tests that confirm that a newly dug well is safe and stable.

Through the afternoon Vidrine and his BP cohorts boss and bully the Transocean technicians into proceeding as if all is normal, even after a check insisted on by Harrell gives back inconsistent data. Harrell has barely accepted a safety award when pressure in the well blows through valves and safety equipment. Gas and oil ignite and colossal explosions rip through the giant rig. Workers are lost immediately and others die trying to stop the oil flow and protect the evacuating drillers. Both Mike and Jimmy are badly wounded but manage to crawl out; Mike and the helmswoman Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) find themselves sixty feet up on the helicopter pad, with a choice of burning where they are or leaping into the flaming sea.


There’s no denying that disaster films have an instant appeal — we want to see what got the jeopardized people into their predicament as well as how they get out of it. The old morbid fantasy The Towering Inferno just trotted out the overpaid stars and sacrificed them as needed to provide violent drama; today’s examples of the genre are usually more sophisticated. More often than not these days, ambivalent politics gets involved. Attributing responsibility for disasters to Fate or Bad Luck no longer washes — we want to know whom to blame.

The BP oil spill is still an open sore in the public imagination. The more BP insists that the Gulf has recovered from the spill, the more we imagine a spreading poison of chemicals killing off life in the oceans. Because of this we approach Deepwater Horizon with trepidation. The legacy of major events can be irreparably distorted when ‘immortalized’ in movies, which is the main problem with a picture like JFK: it’s good to get people riled up about some subjects, but not if a lot of fuzzy facts are going to go down as history. Deepwater had a shaky four-year journey to the screen. It may have started out with a more pointed political edge — the excellent director J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) was replaced by the competent Peter Berg.


What we’re left with is a solid picture that follows a trend that’s been building since 9 /11: mass jeopardy movies in which the central social/political issue is downplayed. A personal story is involved in Deepwater  but the central content is a positive message about the American Working Man, an idealized down-home hero forever to be victimized by government bureaucracy and corporate greed. The oil workers are solid blue-collar heroes that take pride in their work and try to do a good job.

But there’s a definite chain of command problem. It’s supposed to be Transocean’s ship, yet as soon as head wrangler Jimmy Harrell leaves on a break BP calls the shots directly and oil-drilling rig becomes a Ship of Shortcuts. Malkovich’s Vidrine is a hissable, sneering jerk that belittles any viewpoint that does not coincide with his own. Even as the untested well is getting set to erupt like Vesuvius, with the instruments all but screaming ‘unstable,’ Vidrine and his BP yes-men are planning to rush the stressed ship to its new drilling station, and take off to go fishing back home.

I like to see BP as a prime example of Trans-National Corporate greed at its worst, and won’t cry if BP is given a bad rap here. And the last thing we need is a screenplay with characters that blur the line of good and bad, in the service of some odd notion of fairness. However, there are questions. Where exactly is Transocean in the guilt equation? Our heroes complain that their oil-rig ship is a mess, that many systems on board needs serious maintenance and critical safety equipment isn’t working at all. Mike is repairing $40 smoke alarms, fixing ‘only the top level of band-aids.’ Isn’t the state of the ship the direct responsibility of Transocean? Why are BP goons so glibly overriding Transocean authority? Without these questions being answered Kurt Russell’s Transocean boss Harrell doesn’t come off so squeaky clean.


It’s probably for the best that the harrowing events are played as straight action. The screenwriters and Peter Berg have their hands full communicating all the complicated exposition about valves and pressure tests. And things aren’t over-explained. A six year-old girl tells us about drilling mud, just enough so that we accept that it’s something jammed down a pipe to hold the oil — ? Acceptable CGI images show us the rig underwater, from the ocean floor right up the mile (miles?) of pipe to where the ship is ‘hovering’ on the surface. All we really need to know is that the well is in a dangerous state, and that Vidrine is a reckless idiot. His excuses for why the tests come up inconclusive shouldn’t sway an old hand like Harrell, who should be insisting on erring on the side of security. It is not good that there’s really nobody on this rig who puts common sense safety ahead of keeping one’s job, or simple convenience.

One can decide from Deepwater Horizon that Corporations are Evil, but that’s only if one is predisposed in that direction. The movie almost acts as if that issue is none of our business and that we should be just concern ourselves with giving out commendations to the heroes that minimized the loss of life in the disaster. It all depends on what the goals should be. Oil wells and pipelines spill small and spill big, and the big spills are helping to kill the planet. There’s no consensus:  govt. regulation has been demonized just as much as  Corporate culture in general, and the future outlook for the environment is very, very negative. But don’t worry. Those problems are too big for us. Just be happy that Mike Williams will be able to give his daughter her fossil dinosaur tooth.


At least Deepwater Horizon doesn’t apologize for BP. It makes a good comparison with the 1953 James Stewart / Anthony Mann action thriller about offshore oil drilling, Thunder Bay. Honest, patriotic oil man Stewart’s efforts to drill a well thirty miles out in the Gulf are hampered by a lot of whining, violence-prone shrimp fishermen that claim the well will kill off their livelihood. Stewart and his crew have to fight to get their way. Stewart’s defense is that the underwater rigs will provide good places for the sea life to nest and grow – they like oil! In all fairness, even though the movie is bald propaganda for the oil industry, the early decades of shallow drilling did indeed not seem to badly affect the Gulf fishermen.

I enjoyed the film’s characterizations and performances. Wahlberg is good with the snappy ‘working guy’ banter among his fellow crewmates. Kurt Russell exudes authority and he’s credible when putting himself back into action, even after being literally fragged in his shower by the first explosion. Gina Rodriguez hits a fine note as the boat pilot who wants to do the right thing but is ordered to do nothing — she’s a solid asset to the team, but not a superwoman. Once again Kate Hudson takes what’s normally an undemanding role. In this case she’s both realistic and sympathetic. Overall Deepwater Horizon avoids the vulgar roughneck clichés of movies about oilmen, a very positive thing. Deepwater Horizon is exciting, realistic and (best of all) intelligent.


Lionsgate’s Blu-ray + DVD of Deepwater Horizon is a great encoding of this well-made picture. Twenty-five years after the introduction of computer generated movie special effects, moviemakers are finally realizing that incredible CGI disaster scenes look more real if the shots are designed to emulate what a real cameraman might capture on the scene. I long ago lost hope when an excellent picture like Apollo 13, after two hours of great filmmaking, showed a rocket launch from the impossible POV of a camera circling the rocket as it took off. And the CGI zoom in The Aviator from a wide airplane dogfight into the pupil of a pilot’s eye, was the last straw. In Deepwater Horizon we get all hell breaking loose on multiple levels. Much of the action is a blur of disorienting fast cuts and billowing smoke, which make us share the chaos that those on board must have experienced. People don’t survive explosions untouched because they happen to just miss a fireball: we get the idea that shrapnel is flying all over the place like bullets. The helipad might look like a safe spot, but a billow of flame could engulf it without a moment’s warning.

Lionsgate provides a fat list of extra featurettes on the director, the special effects, etc. One is a paean to ‘the American Worker,’ which would feel better if America weren’t eliminating ‘American Jobs’ faster than ever. A series of Beyond the Horizon interview pieces with the main actors allow them to discuss their relationships on the set and their interaction with the real people they portray.

The package also contains an HD Digital code to link up to the film from the web.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Deepwater Horizon
Blu-ray + DVD
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Beyond The Horizon personality featurettes: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez & Dylan O’Brien; Featurettes Captain Of The Rig: Peter Berg, The Fury Of The Rig, Deepwater Surveillance, and Work Like an American.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 26, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.