You know that part in a disaster movie when you meet all the characters? The movie spends an hour introducing everyone, establishing their relationships, supposedly making us care about them before the plane is imperiled, or the skyscraper catches fire, or the volcano erupts, or the tsunami comes rushing down the fjord. The problem is that these are so often soap operas of the mundane. Who cares. I’m here to see a plane crash, a towering inferno, a flood of lava, or a tidal wave. But Deepwater Horizon replaces that soap opera of the mundane with a fascinating look at what it’s like to work on an oil rig. How do you get there? Who do you work with? What do you talk about? What do you talk like (in the PG-13 version of your life)? Where do you stay? What do you wear? What do all those people actually do?
The easy jingoism felt awkward in Lone Survivor, which was director Peter Berg’s last movie. Lone Survivor couldn’t reconcile its procedural about soldiers on a recon mission with its Wahlberg action movie. But his footing is rock steady at sea with this assortment of roughnecks. The oil rig procedural and the disaster movie mesh with industrial efficiency. Compare this to Disney’s Finest Hours, which is structurally similar to Deepwater Horizon. The Finest Hours lost any blue-collar sensibilities to its cast of celebrities and its mushy heartfelt Hollywood schmaltz. It preened when it should have rolled up its sleeves. But Deepwater Horizon, which is surprisingly brutal, is willing to cover its actors with mud, blood, sweat, safety goggles, and hardhats. It doesn’t end with Mark Wahlberg defeating the oil spill in a fistfight. Spoiler, I guess. You can’t begrudge Berg a couple of gratuitous shots of an American flag. He earns it with hard work.
Mark Wahlberg, John Malkovich, and Kurt Russell wear their characters as comfortably as a pair of weathered jeans. Also notable are Dylan O’Brien, previously just a pretty face in the Maze Runner movies, and especially Gina Rodriguez, an actress from the TV show Jane the Virgin who belongs in more movies. She’s got a great combination of star power and authenticity.
Previously, Deepwater Horizon’s name evoked the millions of gallons of oil that spilled unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico for over three months. Months of news stories about the fouled Gulf Coast have a way of standing out in your memory more than an industrial accident. So I hadn’t remembered how catastrophic the event was that precipitated the spill. Suffice to say, this is a movie you should see in the theater. Preferably with a really big screen and a fancy sound system.