In trying to figure out how to sum up Deepwater Horizon, the word I keep coming back to is “workmanlike.” Director Peter Berg’s latest film is a true story dramatization of the oil platform disaster that led to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, though it isn’t so much concerned with the aftermath of the incident as it is in the dangerous circumstances of the platform’s catastrophic malfunction and the dogged survival of the men and women onboard as their world crumbled around them. This is a straight-up survival story through and through—no frills, no excess.
Like any good disaster movie, the front half of the film is spent introducing us to our characters, who aren’t so much memorable by name as they are by their screenwritten archetype. Mark Wahlberg plays an engineer who loves his wife and daughter and is primarily motivated to survive the catastrophe in order to be reunited with them; Gina Rodriguez features as a similar female equivalent to Wahlberg, though her home life and relationships are left substantially less illuminated. Kurt Russell takes a turn at the middle-management boss who desires nothing less than the safety of his crew, while John Malkovich plays the money-obsessed BP executive who was ultimately responsible for ignoring the safety indicators that could have prevented the explosion. These aren’t deep or complex characters, but they don’t necessarily need to be in depicting a group of average people trying to survive against impossible odds. The performers all acquit themselves admirably, especially considering some of the lines they had to rattle off.
See, Deepwater Horizon’s biggest stumbling block is that it frontloads its screenplay with so much jargon and technical engineering lingo that it’s difficult to figure out what exactly the characters are doing, why what they’re doing matters, or what potential consequences of their actions and inactions may occur. There are enough forced metaphors and visual representations of the pipeline below the ocean surface to paint in broad strokes just what is happening in a given moment, but the nuances are sure to be lost on just about anyone who doesn’t have some level of engineering or mechanical background. The film seems to realize this, so it heavy-handedly crams enough foreshadowing and symbolism into the first act to make your high school English teacher weep with joy. It’s not a perfect solution, but the film at least teases the inevitable tragedy enough to distract from the fact that it doesn’t do a great job of explaining why exactly the platform failed so spectacularly.
When the platform finally does explode and the architecture begins to burn, the film does come to life as the characters fight for their survival. Peter Berg thankfully resists the impulse to revel in the pain of his subjects and instead takes an objective, point-by-point approach to showing the sequence of events that led to the crew finally getting off the rig. This is what I mean by the film being “workmanlike.” Just like the crew of the Deepwater Horizon, the cast and crew of the film were there to do a job; they aren’t concerned with artistry, deeper implications, or the nuances of characters either heroic or villainous. They were there to make a movie, and the resulting product is effective in telling its story and then sending you on your way, not claiming to leave you any wiser. Deepwater Horizon isn’t aiming for greatness, so you can’t fault it too much when it doesn’t achieve great heights. It does, however, achieve its modest aspirations, and that’s enough.