Deepwater Horizon (2016) – Review: A Disaster Movie With Heart

Six years ago, tragedy struck when the Deepwater Horizon, a gigantic oil drilling rig exploded resulting in the deaths of 11 men aboard and the largest oil spill in US history. Some would argue that the loss of life was overshadowed by the (very important) environmental damage in the moments following the explosion, and with Deepwater Horizon Peter Berg attempts – and mostly succeeds – to bring the devastating impact on those inside the rig to the forefront.

Berg and star Mark Wahlberg are no strangers to the tragedy-turned-blockbuster sub-genre as the pair teamed up in 2013 for Lone Survivor, but here they have worked out the majority of kinks that plagued their previous film. The two films are very similar in tone and format, but Deepwater does a much better job of establishing the characters in the midst of the tragedy. Roughly the first hour is devoted completely to getting to know the men (and woman) on the rig, letting us see how their relationships work and generally ensuring that we care about them when the second hour kicks in and things go to hell, and boy, do we care.

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In the hands of a lesser filmmaker (not naming names… Micheal Bay) Deepwater could have easily been a typical Hollywood action flick complete with slow motion explosions, a cleavage-barring uniform for the only woman working on the rig, and Mark Wahlberg walking away from an explosion while putting on sunglasses. Thankfully, the movie is more of a drama than an action flick. Even when the tragedy inevitably strikes, character and story remain king – the action feels secondary. That’s not to say that there isn’t spectacle – there is, in spades – but it all feels rooted in the story and it never seems frivolous.

The cast features many A-List stars as well as talent from the world of television, and they are uniformly excellent. Wahlberg  carries the movie as Mike, a man who puts his co-workers before himself at every turn and who has a compelling, sweet relationship with his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter. He certainly has a varied filmography and has played tough-guy-macho-action-hero a number of times, but here he just seems like a real guy who rises to the occasion in unimaginable circumstances. Gina Rodriguez (star of the criminally-underwatched Jane The Virgin) shines as the only woman on the rig and Kurt Russel is solid as always.

If you’re at all familiar with the crisis, you’re aware that BP was behind the drilling operation. This is the area where the movie falters, as we are presented with a very black-and-white, right vs. wrong narrative where the BP suits twirl their mustaches and ignore signs of doom and are ultimately completely responsible for the disaster. In reality, the blame isn’t quite so easily assigned. In any film that is based on a true story, there are going to be changes made and simplification may be inevitable, but I still would have preferred they kept the story as complex as it is in reality, even if that left audiences unsure exactly who to blame.

In the end, that is a pretty small criticism to level against the film – especially since I wasn’t at all excited to watch it and was very impressed with the end result. Deepwater Horizon is well-crafted, powerful and emotional stuff. I would recommend you see it in a theater near you.

8.5/10.

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