The Deepwater Horizon blowout that dumped thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day for months was the worst environmental disaster in US history. Its long-term effects continue to be felt in the Gulf States. Most news focused solely on the oil spill while BP tried to cap its well along with the recovery efforts of Gulf State residents. Lost in that story, though, was the struggle to survive fought by the 100-plus people on the platform in the aftermath of the explosion. Now Mark Walberg and Peter Berg, who collaborated three years ago on Lone Survivor, bring the story of that fight to the screen in Deepwater Horizon.
Along with being a decent actor, Walberg has become an effective producer, both for his own films such as The Fighter and Lone Survivor, and shows where he stays behind the scenes like the HBO series “Entourage,” “In Treatment” and “Boardwalk Empire” as well as films like Prisoners. Berg started as an actor as well but has grown into the ultimate movie hyphenate as actor-director-producer-screenwriter (he produced the last movie I reviewed, Hell or High Water). For Deepwater Horizon Berg directed and did the small role of Mr. Skip, and Walberg executive produced along with starred.
The movie focuses on Mike Williams (Walberg), the chief electronics technician on the rig, beginning on the day he travels out to the platform to begin a multi-week tour of duty. Over breakfast, his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and he watch their daughter practice her school presentation on what her father does, using a can of soda, a sharp tube, and a honey bear to explain the drilling process, thereby giving a simple but effective primer for the audience as well. Also introduced are Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin”), who is in charge of controlling the rig’s placement, and Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the supervisor of the platform for its owners, Transocean.
The “Deepwater” in its title was descriptive, since it was a semi-submersible platform. Berg does an excellent job of explaining its operation. It wasn’t a standard platform on stilts embedded in sea bed but was actually a ship that was kept in position over the drill site through a dynamic system of propellers. In effect the Deepwater Horizon was constantly sailing in one spot 40 miles out in the Gulf. This allowed it to function in water much too deep for the standard platforms. Supplies were delivered by boat while the crew arrived and departed via helicopter.
Once we follow the characters to the platform, the seeds that grew into the disaster are on display. There’s a split in control between the operator of the platform and BP, the oil company that leased it to drill the well. (Though not highlighted, another company involved was Halliburton, which made the blowout protector placed on the ocean floor.) The well is weeks behind schedule, and Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) the main representative for BP, is pushing to get it completed. That includes bypassing expensive concrete work to secure the well. The Deepwater Horizon itself had multiple system failures that Mike Williams runs through when asked by a BP representative. As is usually the case, it’s not just one item that fails but instead a multitude of missteps that lead to the blowout.
The movie production was originally announced by main producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura in March 2011, less than a year after the disaster. The story was based on a New York Times article about what happened on the platform that fateful night. As usually happens, the movie went through several years of development hell with different directors attached to the project. Berg and Walberg came on board in early 2015, following their success with Lone Survivor, and it jumpstarted the production so they began filming within a few months. The Times article was adapted by Matthew Sand while the actual script was written by Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, The Kingdom).
The special effects and visual effects crews who worked on the movie deserve kudos for recreating the Deepwater Horizon’s destruction in a fiery, explosive maelstrom. But kudos are also deserved by the art department and set decorators who make you feel like you’re actually on the platform.
Deepwater Horizon is a thrilling piece of movie making, and it also manages to clarify the events of that April night in 2010. The cast perform their roles with restraint, and in doing so honor the real people who survived the tragedy – and those who did not. Real heroism doesn’t brag; heroes are people who do what they need to do because others are depending upon them, all the while knowing it could lead to the ultimate sacrifice.
Walberg and Berg will be back early in 2017 with their next collaboration. As with the previous two, it’s a true-life story, this time about the Boston Marathon bombings. I’m looking forward to Patriot’s Day.