Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Dir: Peter Berg
At the end of the credits the film clearly admits that many things have been largely dramatised in the telling of this story of disaster, though what does feel closest to reality is the detailed recreation of the destruction that occurred in 2010.
Based on the real disaster on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, we follow the crew of the rig, most closely electrician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) as the situation develops and they have to escape.
The end of the credits essentially point out that so much has been changed that it’s not a wholly accurate account of the events from just a few years ago, though it features characters largely based on real people. What does feel most factual however is the destruction, with award-nominated sound and visual work that surrounds the audience in chaos and disaster.
It’s a difficult prospect to make a film that’s based on a recent real disaster, being respectful to those affected by it while also aiming to make a movie that entertains and gets respectable box office returns. Casting big names such as Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson certainly puts this in blockbuster territory, highlighting the actions of a few key characters and not an ensemble of lesser-known actors. The fact that this seems to have come up slightly short on those box office takings may suggest a certain level of reluctance on the part of moviegoers to cross that line from real and recent tragedy into action movie entertainment.
To a certain extent that’s the fault of the film, adding moments that seem contrived for action and spectacle, with overblown heroism enacted especially by A-list star Wahlberg, when everything that happened is already enough to make the film engaging and dramatic. It does justice to the situation in how monumental the destruction feels, yet pushing that a little further with what the surviving rig crew have called ‘Hollywood sensationalism’ risks undermining the verisimilitude. Some of these liberties involve those who lost their lives, including a crane operator who in reality was killed by being blown off a catwalk after helping others, dramatised as moving a large crane so it wouldn’t fall on others, clearly trying to convey what his colleagues described as his unselfish and helpful nature through an exaggerated act of unselfishness. Overblown action pieces like this do stand out as such, I distinctly thought on a few occasions in the film, ‘I wonder if that’s really how it happened because that feels a little too Hollywood!’
As well as exaggerating heroism, the film puts the burden of responsibility on the oil executives who are shown to be culpable by cutting costs and rushing safety checks. I am sure they did much of this (maybe not with the dialogue in the film), the basic foundation of that feels true, yet this too is dialled up by dwelling on the point, hinging big arguments on it and one piece of Machiavellian casting, John Malkovich. You can’t cast Malkovich in a role like this without fully knowing he will make it more than abundantly clear the person he’s playing is instantly untrustworthy and the focal point of ire. Without doubt the point being made is valid, prioritising profits over safety is wrong, the events surrounding the period depicted in the film demonstrate that well enough on their own by pointing out the loss of life, ecological damage and lack of resulting legal accountability.
Contrasting the oft overdone characterisations and actions, the film impressed me with the detail and believability of the effects. When things rapidly go wrong and turn from bad to worse, we are bombarded with amazingly recreated fire, gushing oil and other large scale destruction, with the visual effects all looking suitably tangible. Much of this must have been done with CGI, there are underwater shots of the drill for example, and some of the wider scenes of the whole rig, yet so much feels like real flames, oily substances, and falling metalwork must have been used to some extent.
Along with visual effects, the sound editing of this film is really spectacular, not just the big things like roaring flames and explosions but the depth and detail of the soundscape they have built, with all the little sounds of machinery in the background. Where it really impresses on a larger scale is in the midst of disaster yet even then the finer details of metal creaking and things falling can be heard far out of shot but creating an immersive experience that I’d imagine is approaching the reality of the situation.
Going to great lengths to honour those who died, the film focuses on the human tragedy more than the environmental impact that continued to dominate headlines for a long time after the initial disaster. There’s one moment we see birds affected by the gushing oil which is very distressing but only a hint to the effect it would go on to have on a far larger scale. That scene with the birds is far shorter than the end of the film in which we get photographs of those who lost their lives, with their names held on screen to form a full list. This is contrasted strikingly against the fact that the manslaughter charges were dropped against the executives, something the filmmakers are clearly disgusted by, why they hammered home their part in everything with no room for doubt.
Focusing on the human tragedy and not the environmental impact is a smart move when making a big budget, factually inspired disaster movie. I’d have liked it more if the actions of the characters had come as close to depicting the real events as I think the sound and visuals do, because then the film would have all the inherent impact of the real disaster without compromising integrity for the sake of entertainment and investor returns.
Nominated for Academy Awards in ‘Sound Editing’ and ‘Visual Effects’ the film earns those Oscar nominations with ease, the sound especially. Whether it will win either award remains to be seen. A documentary is in the works, supported by the surviving crew to tell more viewpoints of the disaster and set the story straight, that’s something I’m interested in seeing when it’s done.