With a scant introduction, director Peter Berg airlifts the audience into the chaotic micro-culture of offshore oil drilling in “Deepwater Horizon.” Our hero, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), barely has time to kiss his wife (Kate Hudson) and kid (Stella Allen) before we’re awash in the jargon and joshing of roughnecks, engineers and BP company men jostling for the bottom line.
Berg’s camera jogs behind the Horizon crew on the job: Mike, the electronics technician, rig boss Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and bridge officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Among the verbal melee, one phrase is initially repeated over and over until it rises out of the ambient chatter and we realize just how important it is: “cement test,” or the lack thereof. The cement is what protects the oil rig from the pressure of the oil and gas drilled out of the well below it. Over budget and behind schedule, the higher-ups decided to take their chances with the cement and save a few hundred thousand dollars.
There’s another phrase, repeated by Mike: “Hope ain’t a tactic.” In fact, hope fails the crew at every turn. Hope fails after an inconclusive negative pressure test on the drill line; hope fails when mud starts flowing up out of the well, and hope is blown to smithereens when every safety protocol and backup system fails due to human or mechanical error and the Deepwater Horizon explodes into a towering inferno.
The story of the disaster, based on a New York Times article by David Barstow, David Rodhe and Stephanie Saul, has been massaged into Hollywood-style heroics. While the article indicates no clear villain other than miscommunication and lack of leadership and preparation, the movie gives us pure villainy in the form of company man Donald Vidrine. He’s played with a chop-licking, sneering sense of evil by John Malkovich, who spews Bayou-accented charm and threats in equal measure; urging and persuading the crew to do things his way — in short, the cheap and easy way.
Berg (“Friday Night Lights’) plunges us into this world without much explanation, and many moments feel like a crash course in the politics and logistics of offshore oil drilling. But there’s care taken to foreshadow the important moments that are anchors throughout the story. For instance, a soda-can demonstration for a school project explains the drilling process in the simplest of terms.
The tension never lets up, thanks to the rumbling, quaking well on the sea floor that groans and bubbles and whooshes ominously, interjecting frequently. That undersea grumble erupts into a horrific, roaring spectacle of fire, and Berg cleanly captures that terrible chaos and destruction.
Thanks to efficient and effective character moments — a nickname, a greeting, a tease — we know everyone who’s in the dark, smoky rubble, slicked with mud and oil, and the human losses are keenly felt, even more so at the end of the film when it pays tribute to the 11 men who died on the rig. “Deepwater Horizon” captures this incomprehensible disaster, pointing a finger at those responsible but without eliding the horrific randomness of it all.