Man Seeking Movies: ‘Deepwater Horizon’ a survival thriller amidst tragedy

The environmental impacts of an oil spill are an afterthought in this action thriller about 2010’s BP oil spill.

By Jack Cronin | Oct. 4, 2016

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The Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig owned and operated by BP, exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010. In the 87 days that followed, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf’s waters. By all accounts, the oil spill was one of the biggest disasters of the 21st century with environmental, social and economic repercussions.

Director Peter Berg’s latest film, Deepwater Horizon, is a fictional representation of the events that led up to the oil rig’s sinking. While it doesn’t necessarily do justice to the resulting environmental fallout, the survival thriller successfully captures the tragedy and humanity of what was ultimately an avoidable disaster.

Boarding the rig after a stint of rest, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) resume their work on the Deepwater Horizon. Joining these two is their crew chief “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and a team of BP executives, spearheaded by Don Vidrine (John Malkovich), who aptly remind the crew that they are more than 40 days behind schedule.

Driven by corporate greed, the BP execs attempt to fast forward the drilling process in order to get back on schedule. Following a pair of tests with questionable results, Mr. Jimmy and Mike are rushed into beginning to drill despite reasonable concerns. Inevitably, a chain of disasters ensue, endangering the lives of all those aboard the rig.

From the moment oil starts shooting out of the pipes, Deepwater Horizon adopts a survival-mode mentality. Maimed, injured and covered in soot, the crew members frantically pick themselves up and hobble through corridors and passageways filled with heavy machinery.

Amidst all of this, the gravity and danger of the situation are never lost. The spontaneous explosions, flying metal and persistent fires create the sensation that everyone’s life is in jeopardy. Toss in an erratic shaky camera and the disaster becomes a chaotic, unexpected frenzy in which characters are truly terrified.

Central to this is the way that characters react. Picking themselves up from rubble in a daze, the characters slowly but surely process what is going on and what the next best course of action is.

While Deepwater Horizon definitely works as a survival thriller, it misses the mark as a character drama and completely omits the spill’s environmental fallout.

From the crew members to the BP execs, the film is riddled with character stereotypes. Mr. Jimmy is a father figure to his crew; Andrea Fleytas is a tomboy interested in cars. Then there’s the single-minded corporate employees from BP who are only interested in financial profits. These stereotypes in conjunction with some early, forced dialogue make it hard to invest in the characters.

More important, though, is the baffling fact that the movie never so much as mentions the catastrophic impact that the event had on wildlife in the Gulf as well as the communities that live along its coast. Focusing on the tragedy of the oil rig’s sinking makes for an enjoyable spectacle of survival, but its complete exclusion of the spill’s implications is blatantly ignorant.

Deepwater Surival is a thrilling tale of survival amidst human tragedy. But beyond that, it seems to forget the broader implications of its own subject matter.

MOVE gives Deepwater Horizon 3 out of 5 stars.

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