I tend to be rather critical of the ‘based on true events’ films. Too often the relationship to real events is a crutch for a weak production, using pretentious claims of relevance to paper over shoddy storytelling and sentimentalism. Even worse, these films are often bland studio products that adhere to screenwriting convention rather than revealing the purportedly interesting events they ought to be presenting. With surprising relief, I found that Deepwater Horizon carried none of this luggage and I was rather impressed by it.
Deepwater Horizon depicts the explosion of the eponymous BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico which led to the infamous oil spill disaster in 2010. I have no idea how accurately events are adhered to in the slightest. The film could be libellous in the extreme but this is not a concern of mine. This is a film review, not a fact-checking session. The events are largely framed around the viewpoint of Chief Electrical Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), who gets the obligatory grounding in his sympathy-inducing home life before we see him shipped out to the rig for the rest of the film. That is the biggest concession to slightly cloying cinematic tropes, which is neither done badly or too egregiously, but the film is far more interesting on the rig.
Weirdly but not unpleasantly obsessed with explaining how drilling for oil works
I say that the rig is more interesting not because it inevitably goes up in a spectacular firestorm but because the film is quite interested in the operational and procedural work on an oil rig. The disaster movie aspect is more conventional once it gets going but what differentiates Deepwater Horizon is that the first half has this rather odd obsession with explaining how the drilling process and the rig itself work, something which I found surprisingly interesting. This recasts the film as a sort of post-incident case study as we (perhaps a little slowly in my case) grasp the rudimentary principles of what the crew are trying to achieve and how it all goes to hell. Certainly, it’s a bizarre angle to take and it sounds like a hard sell (indeed the trailers for this film are simply full of muddy eruptions and fire) but because you see a clear line of causality to the explosion, the dread and tension steadily builds.
The film wouldn’t have worked without some human drama to carry us through and this is cemented in these early stages with everyman Mike observing the professional aggravation between top-ranking crewman Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and BP company ghoul Virdine (John Malkovich). The focus on the actual environment of the rig, the tensions in the enclosed space and the mix of professional and personal antagonism did recall the classic Russell film The Thing for me.
Manages to grasp a meaningful scale of destruction
Of course, cataloguing the series of failures that lead to one helluva explosion couldn’t be a film in itself so we eventually do get the big bang. To say it was less interesting than hearing how oil drilling works (I am going to try and employ this in conversation, somehow…) does undersell the spectacle. Given the escalation of destruction porn in our modern blockbusters, the fact I engaged with a disaster that didn’t level an entire city seems an accomplishment in itself. How rare to even invest anything in large scale destruction anymore.
Deepwater Horizon by no means reinvents the wheel but it overcame my prejudices and presumptions regarding ‘real events’ films. It had a slightly different take on approaching the subject matter and didn’t indulge its explosion-heavy finale to the point of nauseum. I could wager a fair guess at which bits of the film were heavily fabricated to create a more ‘satisfying’ narrative but the film never felt as though it had descended into a Hollywood template script. The earnest ending is the only section I can envision people finding tiresome but one could hardly cut that out of a film depicting actual deaths.
Verdict: Deepwater Horizon was a pleasant surprise with a nice procedural-disaster film schtick.