'Deepwater Horizon' Honors The Sacrifice Without Sacrificing The Action

Sep 30, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 3:44 pm

One of the nation's biggest environmental disasters is now the season's big disaster flick. Sound insensitive? Well, rest assured the filmmakers were aware of — and have managed to sidestep — any qualms audience members are likely to have.

Deepwater Horizon tells the story of the oil drilling rig that turned into an inferno in 2010 off the coast of Louisiana — a story of tragic, entirely avoidable missteps and astonishing personal heroics.

Engineer Mike Williams is our entry point to the story. Played by Mark Wahlberg, he's sort of a Mr. Fixit on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. He knows how everything works. We in the audience, though, need to be brought up to speed, so the film starts with a nifty demonstration on his kitchen table. His daughter is working on a school report and Mike offers to run props for her.

Explaining that pulling up oil from hidden depths makes her dad something of a "dinosaur tamer," she reads, "oil is a monster, like the mean old dinosaurs all that oil used to be. For 300 million years they've been squeezed tighter and tighter, until Dad and his friends put a hole in their roof."

Mike grabs a soda can, and punctures it with a metal thingy.

"Freedom, so they rush to the new hole, and they run into this stuff called mud."

As she's talking, she pours honey down the straw, and darned if the honey doesn't block the soda, just like it's supposed to.

Mom and Dad are proud.

"Stay 10 forever please," Mike says as they walk away from the kitchen table. But before they get three steps, the honey gives way and there's soda on the ceiling.

Time to head to that oil rig — Deepwater Horizon — by helicopter, because it's 50 miles offshore. Mike and the relief crew, which includes rig driver Gina Rodriguez and safety guy Kurt Russell, are surprised on arrival that some safety tests are being skipped. Mud gets poured and it starts to act alarmingly like the honey in the kitchen.

Russell keeps ordering more tests; BP oil exec John Malkovich — who is "oily" — keeps talking about how far behind schedule they are ... and the rest, as they say, is history.

Director Peter Berg spends the first part of the film finding intimate omens for the disaster to come — the splashed ceiling, the car that won't start at a crucial moment — then delivers catastrophe on an almost biblical scale: glass shattering as it is hit by gale force sludge; dying, oil-soaked pelicans falling from the heavens; flames leaping skyward from a drilling rig turned floating volcano.

The technical work is impressive enough that it's almost miraculous that the focus stays on the human beings at the inferno's center. Real people, 11 of whom died in what is arguably the globe-scarring ecological disaster of our time.

So you can't help marveling at the tightrope the filmmakers walk: honoring their courage and sacrifice while making an action flick entertaining enough to justify the more than $100 million it took to make it come alive on-screen. And come alive, Deepwater Horizon does, in 107 minutes of terse, tight storytelling, a good 95 of which are white-knuckle tense.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the country's worst environmental disasters is now this season's big disaster movie. "Deepwater Horizon" tells the story of the oil rig that turned into an inferno in 2010 off the coast of Louisiana. NPR critic Bob Mondello says the film tells a story of tragic missteps and personal heroics.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Mike, who's played by Mark Wahlberg, is Mr. Fix-it (ph) on an oil rig in the Gulf. He knows how everything works. We in the audience, though, need to be brought up to speed. So the film starts with a nifty demonstration on his kitchen table.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

KATE HUDSON: (As Felicia Williams) Honey, show Daddy.

STELLA ALLEN: (As Sydney Williams) I'm not done.

HUDSON: (As Felicia Williams) You did such a good job.

MARK WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) It's show time. I can do your props.

MONDELLO: Mike's daughter is doing a school report.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

STELLA: (As Sydney Williams) My dad is Mike. He works on a drilling rig that pumps oil out from underneath the ocean.

WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) And we're the explorers.

STELLA: (As Sydney Williams) Like Dora.

WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) Like Dora.

STELLA: (As Sydney Williams) That oil is a monster, like the mean old dinosaurs all that oil used to be. So for 300 million years, these old dinosaurs have been getting squeezed tighter and tighter...

WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) We get it. Just use two tighters.

STELLA: (As Sydney Williams) Then Dad and his friends make a hole in their roof.

MONDELLO: Mike grabs a soda can and punctures it with a metal thingy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) Yeah.

STELLA: (As Sydney Williams) And these mean old dinosaurs can't believe it - freedom. So they rush to the new hole.

MONDELLO: As she's talking, she pours honey down the straw.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

STELLA: (As Sydney Williams) They run into this stuff called mud.

MONDELLO: And darned if the honey doesn't block the soda, just like it's supposed to. Mom and Dad are proud.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

HUDSON: (As Felicia Williams) Yeah.

WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) That was amazing. Stay 10 forever, please.

MONDELLO: Then, as they walk away from the kitchen table, the honey gives way, and there's soda on the ceiling. So time to head to that oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, by helicopter because it's 50 miles off shore. Mike and the relief crew are surprised on arrival that some safety tests are being skipped. Mud gets poured, and it starts to act just like the honey in the kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We're rolling at 1,395, Mr. Jimmy. That's a lot of pressure.

KURT RUSSELL: (As Jimmy Harrell) Enough to cut your car in half.

MONDELLO: Safety guy Kurt Russel keeps ordering more tasks. BP oil exec John Malkovich, who is oily, keeps talking about how far behind schedule they are. And the rest, as they say, is history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

WAHLBERG: (As Mike Williams) Hey, Jason, are you seeing this?

MONDELLO: Director Peter Berg spends the first part of the film finding intimate omens for the disaster to come, then delivers catastrophe on an almost biblical scale - glass shattering as it's hit by gale force sludge, dying oil-soaked pelicans falling from the heavens, flames leaping skyward from a drilling rig turned floating volcano.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Everybody off deck.

MONDELLO: Technical work is impressive enough that it's almost miraculous that the focus stays on the human beings at the inferno's center.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We've got to go right now.

MONDELLO: Real people - 11 of whom died in what is arguably the globe-scarring ecological disaster of our time. So you can't help marveling at the tightrope the filmmakers walk honoring their courage and sacrifice, while making an action flick entertaining enough to justify the more than $100 million it took to make it live on the screen. And live "Deepwater Horizon" does, in 107 minutes of terse, tight storytelling, a good 95 of which are white-knuckle tense. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.