If you’re concerned that director Peter Berg’s upcoming film Patriots Day—starring Mark Wahlberg as a fictional police sergeant involved in the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers—might exploit victims of the horrible tragedy that befell our city less than four years ago, you might breathe a little easier after seeing Wahlberg’s latest, Deepwater Horizon, a thriller based on true events. This second successful collaboration between the Boston-born actor and Berg comes on the heels of the duo’s last torn-from-true-life film, 2013’s surprise hit Lone Survivor, an Afghanistan-set drama about a Navy SEAL mission gone bad. Their new nail-biter, which dramatizes the events surrounding the worst oil disaster in American history, honors the 126 heroic workers on the titular oil rig, 11 of whom lost their lives after explosions ripped through a Transocean-owned, BP-leased drilling unit located 41 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010.
Although Berg has certainly aimed to thrill an audience once the shit—plus a lot of mud and oil—hits the fan, he isn’t afraid to point fingers while he entertains. You’ll likely come away very angry at BP, if you weren’t already. The hissable “BP guys” are led by Donald Vidrine (a drawling John Malkovich), who’s so crude you wonder why our heroes don’t skip the bottom of the ocean and simply mine him for oil instead. Forty-three days behind schedule and $53 million over budget, Vidrine has begun cutting corners, sending home safety crews responsible for testing the cement used for plugging the Macondo Well before the job is done. “We are confident in the integrity of our see-ment,” Vidrine insists through his Cheshire cat grin, although crew chief Jimmy Harrell (a well-cast Kurt Russell), affectionately known as “Mr. Jimmy” by his men (including Ethan Suplee’s Jason Anderson and Dylan O’Brien’s Caleb Holloway), isn’t so sure.
Neither is chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg, who’s also a producer on the film), a family man who we first see at home in bed with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson). Since Mike’s about to be off on his rig for the next three weeks, Felicia wants a little love. “Do you want the 30-, 60- or 90-second plan?” he asks before Berg playfully cuts to a shot of Mike using a screwdriver on a kitchen cabinet door a short while later, as his young daughter Sydney (Stella Allen), a science enthusiast, eats breakfast nearby. When the girl asks her dad how he pumps oil at work, he informs her that the Deepwater Horizon doesn’t pump oil, but only drills for it before moving on, demonstrating one of the rig’s drilling procedures in miniature with a Coke can as a prop. Unexpectedly—and ominously—it begins spewing forth its contents, a harbinger of things to come.
The omens continue to add up during these early domestic scenes, when we’re also introduced to deputy dynamic positioning officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez of TV’s Jane the Virgin), whose vintage Mustang won’t start as she attempts to depart for work. Even the copter that carries Mr. Jimmy, Mike and Andrea—along with a pair of BP execs (James DuMont and Joe Chrest) who are ironically along to surprise Mr. Jimmy with the company’s top safety award during a photo op that literally makes him want to take a shower—is impacted by a “bird strike,” another bad sign, as viewers of Clint Eastwood’s Sully can attest.
More birds show up later, of course, covered in oil, unable to fly and gasping for air—horrific visual embodiments of the environmental calamity caused by the disaster that still afflicts the Gulf of Mexico to this day.
And what a disaster it is. Although Berg isn’t in the business of exploitation here, you’ll definitely get what you paid for once things begin going BOOM, aided by stunning visual effects that—just like in Sully—never look like they were created on a computer. Balls of fire and plumes of smoke fill the screen as metal and glass rain down (the chaotic sound design is worth noting as well). It’s an apocalyptic vision that’s downright biblical, a notion reinforced late in the picture by Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand when they focus on a sea of survivors as they kneel down, bow their heads and recite the Lord’s Prayer.
But before they pray together, they seemingly go to hell and back, in flaming visions that are made all the more powerful by the hour of buildup as Berg tightens the screws, cutting to foreboding shots of underwater fissures. All the while, Malkovich’s vile Vidrine haunts the background of the frames like Mephistopheles, a twinkle in his eye as he goads our heroes into proceeding with a drill they don’t feel is safe. And while you may not understand all of the chatter about “kill lines” and “negative pressure tests,” it certainly adds to the proceedings, as does Berg’s decision to build and shoot on a nearly full-sized replica of the Deepwater Horizon. It may not have been cheap, but it definitely feels authentic—as does Wahlberg, who anchors the movie with his reliably well-oiled performance as an average Joe who does what he can to not only save himself, but everyone around him. More than just a thrilling action movie, the end result is a moving testament to the 11 souls who lost their lives.
Deepwater Horizon ***
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson, Stella Allen, Ethan Suplee, Trace Adkins, Brad Leland, Joe Chrest, James DuMont, Dave Maldonado, Douglas M. Griffin, Jeremy Sande, Peter Berg and John Malkovich. Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, from a screen story by Sand, based on the article “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.