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Deepwater Horizon is a special effects blockbuster. If divorced entirely from its real life events and tragedy it would fit perfectly within the summer movie season, and would have likely put a few of those contenders to shame.
However, Deepwater Horizon is also based, at least somewhat, on a true story. The oil rig explosion was a tragic event in which 11 people lost their lives, leading to the worst environmental disaster in the history of the planet. As a "ripped from the headlines" true story, Deepwater Horizon leaves something to be desired. As a straight up disaster movie, however, it's one hell of a ride.
Our point of entry into the film's events is Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams. He's heading off to start a three-week stint aboard the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. On the way, we're introduced to Kurt Russell as Williams' boss, affectionately known as "Mr. Jimmy," and Gina Rodriguez as rig pilot Andrea Fleytas, because the oil rig is actually a boat, after all.
Once on board the Deepwater Horizon, the clash between Mr. Jimmy and the folks from British Petroleum, who are renting the use of Horizon, begins immediately. The drilling is behind schedule, so BP wants to get moving, but Jimmy isn't so sure because the cement meant to seal the drill site hasn't been properly tested. BP executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich at his slimiest) gets them to go push on and it's no spoiler to say it doesn't go well.
All of the characters are drawn with broad strokes but they're drawn well enough. Mark Wahlberg's Mike Williams is the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, it's a role he's played before, and will again, because he does it well. The BP executives are the clear villains of the piece. The disaster happens because they push too hard. Mr. Jimmy is the man for whom safety is the top priority, so he's one of the heroes. How close these characters are to .reality is for somebody else to say, but the actors create the necessary empathy that the audience needs to have so that we'll care what happens to them when disaster strikes.
The first act of the film is light and almost fun. The dialogue between characters is snappy and entertaining, whether we're watching Williams and Fleytas discuss the classic car that she can't get running, or watching Mr. Jimmy call the BP executives idiots to their face, with a smile on his. All of this is interspersed with shots of the pipe at sea floor level. It's not clear exactly what's up, but what is clear is that it's not good.
While the ominous tone works to a point, it's also one of Deepwater Horizon's flaws. The movie is awash in oil drilling jargon, and next to none of it is explained. The film opens with a literal elementary school explanation of how the basic drilling process works, but after that, the audience is on their own. Is it a vital flaw? Not really, the general situation is clear. The audience can understand that when a gauge jumps from zero to 800, that's bad, but they can't tell you why.
Once the penny drops, however, all attempts at dialogue and characterization go off the edge of the platform, and it's time to strap in for the explosions. The second half of the film is a non-stop thrill ride as everybody attempts to find a way off the Deepwater Horizon as fire rages around them. The set pieces here are amazing. Every stunt looks practical rather than digital, while simultaneously looking like nothing any stuntman would be allowed to do.
It's clear that director Peter Berg was biding his time through the opening of the film to get here. From the moment the first geyser of mud erupts on the platform Deepwater Horizon does not let up. From that point forward it doesn't matter what steps people might have taken to cause this, the fight is now one of man versus nature. We follow several characters as they begin to come to terms with what has happened, and try to figure out what to do about it. In the back of your mind, you're realizing that not everybody survived this disaster, but since these aren't household names you're wondering if anybody you're following might not make it. The emotional impact of Deepwater Horizon as a film is as real as the events that inspired it
It seems odd celebrating a movie about a terrible tragedy for its phenomenal action, but that the movie they've made with Deepwater Horizon. You'd be forgiven for forgetting entirely that what you're watching was based on a true story where people died. In the end, however, the film does remind you that these events really happened and real people lost their lives. Real people were also heroes, it's probably good to not forget that either.