Deepwater Horizon is a triumph of traditional, fundamentally sound storytelling. It’s proof of the power of film to make any subject matter gripping.
The movie revisits the April 2010 disaster aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit that claimed 11 lives and left a hole in the ocean floor that blasted 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before finally being plugged 87 days later. The movie follows electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg, who also produces), first as he sees the tension between British Petroleum executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and rig foreman Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), then as he navigates through the firestorm to try and get survivors out.
The first trailer for this movie, which intercuts between Williams’ daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen), demonstrating the drilling process and the disaster itself, should get some kind of short film award and displays everything this movie has to offer. The movie is a masterpiece atmospherically and tonally, turning a little girl with a shaken can of Coke into a portent of impending doom. Like on the oil itself, the audience is put under an immense amount of pressure for the film’s first 40 minutes, only to have it burst uncontrollably to life.
Deepwater Horizon absolutely nails the basics. Despite being an effects-heavy disaster piece, it’s an intensely character-focused story. Clear motivations abound. Williams is a family man trying to make a living. Vidrine is a company man who is 43 days behind schedule and wants to take shortcuts. Harrell just wants the ship to not explode.
It’s reflected in the camerawork — there are only a small handful of sweeping, “oh the humanity” shots. Almost everything is a handheld mid shot or close up. Where many disaster movies fail is they only shoot their disasters from a distance, giving viewers a God’s-eye view in an effort to convey their super-storm’s grand scale. But viewers are humans, and the most impactful shots will always be of other humans.
Deepwater Horizon doesn’t let viewers think about it as an explosion on some oil rig 40 miles off the coast. It forces them to think of it as an explosion on a boat with more than 100 souls trapped onboard. When the mud bursts, there isn’t a shot of it bursting dramatically with a bunch of CGI workers getting ragdolled added seemingly as an afterthought. There’s a shot of it bursting dramatically, and then the film cuts almost immediately to close shots of characters we’ve spent a significant amount of time with and grown to like getting thrown into a steel wall and covered in mud.
This movie made me genuinely wonder — and care — whether or not a character has died, and I can’t remember the last time that happened.
There is no grand shot of the derrick toppling, but there are dozens of shots of the workers it’s threatening to topple on cowering in terror. There’s only one shot of the mud bursting through the rig and rupturing it irreparably, but there’s an entire scene dealing with one character’s gruesome compound fracture and another dealing with a character being shredded by shrapnel from the blast.
There’s room for improvement, of course. The dedication to handheld close-ups is admirable, but it does get old and isn’t necessarily the best choice for every scene. There are a lot of shots where both the camera and subject move, and there’s too much going on to follow. Some of the story threads are weaker than others — watching Vidrine struggle through the chaos isn’t as interesting as watching Williams, and the cutaways to Williams’ wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson) fall flat. Hudson is great in a limited role, but it feels less like its own storyline and more like a reminder that she’s there.
Deepwater Horizon’s $156 million budget seems excessive and definitely represents a risk, but it doesn’t seem unnecessary in hindsight. A lot of these shots would have to be done digitally for safety if for no other reason.
It’s not going to make that money back — Tim Burton’s latest is trouncing it in a weekend without any strong holdovers — but it deserves to. It’s really good.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, intern at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.