‘Deepwater Horizon’ – Haunting dramatization of a real disaster

Mark Wahlberg portrays chief electronics technician Mike Williams on the titular drilling rig in a scene from director Peter Berg's "Deepwater Horizon." (AP)

The smallest of human error quickly grows to massive tragedy in “Deepwater Horizon”, from director Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor”), a haunting dramatization of the ill-fated drilling rig that caused the largest petroleum disaster in U.S. history. Starring Mark Wahlberg as the rig’s chief electronics technician, the film follows the platform’s crew as they fight for survival.

For Mike Williams (Wahlberg), it was supposed to be another routine three-week assignment. The free-floating Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to finish drilling a hole miles into the ocean floor, so the next team could extract the oil. But when the British Petroleum representatives leasing the rig insist on skipping a safety inspection, a defect in the system soon causes a violent explosion. Mike and the crew must face nightmarish dangers as they struggle to prevent further disaster, and escape Deepwater Horizon alive.

While tackling a real-life disaster can be tricky business, director Peter Berg has worked closely with survivors of the 2010 incident, including Mike Williams, to ensure that the situation is presented as close to reality as possible. As a result, audiences are treated to a film that largely focuses on the rig disaster itself, while mostly ignoring the financial and political issues that came after the incident. An overly pushy BP representative (John Malkovich), who desires to save the corporation money on safety testing, is as far as the filmmakers take this angle.

Because of the narrative framing, the filmmakers can highlight the hours leading up to, and immediately after, the tragedy. The struggle almost entirely follows the dozens of men and women aboard the rig, placing the audience within the nightmarish inferno. The film’s pacing is a welcomed surprise, layered to provide different levels of tension leading up to the blow-out of the well.

Essentially, the audience knows disaster is approaching, and each action and scene leaves viewers rigid with anticipation. This is perhaps the most successful angle Berg was able to accomplish. As soon as the situation takes a turn for the worse, the film becomes a fast-paced, haunting, frenzied struggle for the characters to save others and themselves. Following Wahlberg’s Williams, the audience gains a visceral sense of the confusion and chaos the crew experienced.

But this also results in perhaps the story’s biggest downside; because of the short time-frame, there is not much room for character development. And when there should be, such as the BP representatives on site learning the consequences of their actions, the film doesn’t place enough focus on their reactions. This is a recurring issue; many central characters are teased, as if their lives will hold larger relevance to the plot, only to fall to the background, to focus mainly on Wahlberg. It’s understandable given the time-frame in which the film takes place, but still somewhat distracting.

With a haunting, frenzied tone, director Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” recounts the final hours aboard the ill-fated drilling rig, as a group of men and women struggle for their lives following the disaster. Although the film does not offer much character development, the cast including Mark Wahlberg and John Malkovich still provide gripping characterizations as this dramatization of real events leaves audiences gasping for breath.

My grade: 7.5 out of 10 stars.

(Timothy Hogg has a minor in film and media studies from Slippery Rock University. Readers may contact him by email at timothyhogg.thederrick@gmail.com.)