In the safe, sanitised world of the multiplex, where product placement and brand partnerships reign supreme, it’s rare to see a mainstream film with the guts to double as a takedown of a multi-billion dollar company. But, after watching Peter Berg’s surprisingly yet deservedly angry restaging of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which caused 11 deaths and the biggest oil spill in history, it’ll take a minor PR miracle to restore the average moviegoer’s faith in BP.

On paper, Berg is a poor choice for the material. His last film at sea was Battleship, a soulless, swaggering Transformers knock-off based on a board game, and his last with star Mark Wahlberg was the viscerally effective but heavy-handed Navy Seals drama Lone Survivor. He also tried and failed to make something resembling an issues movie with the forgettable Saudi-set actioner The Kingdom. But for the most part in this effective disaster thriller, he keeps the flag-waving jingoism to a minimum, to focus on the devastating tragedy at hand.

Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, an engineer who heads off to sea, leaving his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter at home. It seems like business as usual as he makes his way to Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, but once aboard, there is uncomfortable tension. His senior, a gruff Kurt Russell, is warring with visiting BP execs, who insist a drilling operation go ahead despite safety concerns. The most ruthless suit, a drawling John Malkovich, appears unmoved by complaints about faulty equipment and unfinished checks.

When the work begins, under protest, it soon becomes clear there are major problems at play, and soon men are fighting for their lives on a burning oil rig in the middle of the sea.

Deepwater Horizon: Mark Wahlberg in disaster movie trailer

There’s no denying the harrowing nature of the story being told, but Berg is admirably, uncharacteristically restrained. Wahlberg’s family dynamic is briskly yet believably constructed, and we’re spared some of the more cliched moments we’d usually expect in this kind of film. There’s no heavy signposting or emotional goodbye when he sets off for the rig. And once we’re at sea, the dialogue is terse, tense and delivers often complex technical minutiae clearly, without anything feeling as if it has been dumbed down.

The film also squarely, and quite rightly, places the blame for the disaster at BP’s door. Without turning them into moustache-twirling villains, we see its representatives callously place profits over potential loss of human life and environmental damage. I can’t recall a film that’s been quite so brave or clear in its untainted bile for one particular company (“money-hungry sonsabitches”).

When all hell breaks loose, Berg stages the action horribly well, capturing the panic and gruesome mayhem without the film ever feeling exploitative. It’s spectacularly constructed, yet it doesn’t forget about the loss of life, ensuring that, despite thin characterisation, the impact is felt. Sentiment is kept at bay, and it’s only a treacly country song at the end, over an otherwise powerful photographic tribute, that feels a bit clumsy.

Wahlberg, again, makes for a solid everyman, and there’s a nice decision, late in the film, to focus on his shock back on land rather than a sugary reunion with his family. Russell and Malkovich riff on types they’ve played before, but with predictable skill, while Jane the Virgin breakout Gina Rodriguez makes the most of a small role as a young worker who calls for help.

Deepwater Horizon is a gruelling disaster movie and a reminder of one company’s catastrophic oversights, and it stands as a worthy tribute to the brave men involved.


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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