Peter Berg does not do subtle. The director of Hancock, Battleship and Lone Survivor is all about spectacle over substance, even when dealing with real life events such as the explosion that destroyed the oil rig from which this film gets its name that resulted in the death of 11 workers and the release of millions of litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the biggest environmental disaster in United States history. Berg isn’t concerned about the political, environmental or corporate consequences of what transpired, or even the moral and ethical debates around our reliance on fossil fuels that drive such deep sea extractions in the first place; he just wants to blow shit up. As such, whilst Deepwater Horizon does make some effort to examine the events immediately prior to the catastrophic failure that sent the rig into meltdown, by and large Berg is more interested in the opportunities that such a calamity creates for spectacular actions sequences, stunts and visual effects.
The film opens with the various key players in the drama making their way to the rig for the start of another three-week stint in what is undeniably one of the most isolated and potentially hazardous workplaces imaginable. We know straight up that Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams is the hero of the piece because he has a sexy wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson) and cute-as-a-button young daughter (Stella Allen) waiting for him at home. Kurt Russell (with moustache, of course) is Jimmy Harrell, the gruff but highly respected manager who is under pressure from BP company executives (a hammy John Malkovich and Friday Night Lights’ Brad Leland) to hurry things along with the operation already 43 days behind schedule. We also meet Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) – the token girl on the rig – and various other crew members who may or may not survive the impending mayhem. It goes without saying that, in an effort to make up time, shortcuts are taken – against the advice of Jimmy and others who possess considerably more expertise than the BP boffins – and the results are nothing less than disastrous.
A few Skype exchanges between Mike and Felicia and a surprise presentation to Jimmy take us away from the impending drama that is unfolding and these moments play out as a distinctly unsubtle attempt to engender an emotional connection from the audience in the hope we will care about the characters and what happens to them. The problem is that these moments are so fleeting and characterisations so superficial that it is hard to invest much energy into worrying about what might happen to anybody, which is particularly disappointing given that these are real people whose experiences are being drawn upon in the name of entertainment. Therefore, it really is the action on which the film relies and this is where Berg’s skills are best served. He ramps up the chaos as the rig becomes engulfed in flames amid spewing oil and gas, the crew of a nearby support ship unable to render any assistance other than plucking survivors out of the ocean.
Once the shock and awe subsides, Berg wraps things up quickly with the obligatory emotional reunions to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy and, hopefully, not thinking about all the stuff that you haven’t been told. Sure, Berg makes it clear that it is the executives from BP, and not the crew members, who are responsible for the disaster, but he never really takes them to task. As is obligatory these days in films drawn from real life, the final moments feature images of the people on whom these characters are based, but it plays as tokenistic rather than insightful in this instance. There is a real missed opportunity here to explore the corporate, political and social consequences of one of the worst workplace disasters of recent times, yet Berg lets those responsible off the hook by pointing the finger at a couple of individuals rather than exploring a corporate culture that emphasises profit over employee safety and environmental responsibility, including the ongoing efforts by BP to downplay their culpability and the impact of their actions. Marky Mark saving Snake Plisskin and Jane the Virgin is stirring stuff, but there is a much bigger story to be told here.