Credit: David Lee

Of all the cinematic horrors that have risen from the sea — the krakens and mega sharks, murderous squid and needle-toothed barracudas — there might not be one as catastrophic as the monster that drives Deepwater Horizon: greed. And unlike most scripted bogeymen, its real-world impact is depressingly measurable; when the now-notorious offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers aboard and gushing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it marked one of the worst environmental disasters in human history. It was also entirely preventable.

Based on a series of investigative articles by The New York Times, the movie’s story line is essentially split down the middle, both narratively and stylistically: a dense, jargon-filled procedural that blooms into a gobsmacking hour of undiluted shock and awe. In the character setting and tension ratcheting that occupy the first half, we meet Deepwater’s chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg, doing the sort of enhanced Everyman he specializes in: tough but kind, a moral straight arrow with the steady gaze of a good citizen and the delts of an action hero). He’s got a loving wife (Kate Hudson) and precocious daughter at home, and treats the team on board like family, too, especially engine fixer Andrea Fleytas (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez) and crew captain Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, whose impressive mustache seems to double as a BS filter). They’re all used to the long hours and isolation of the job but less accustomed to hosting pushy, pampered executives — the worst of whom is immediately made clear, and not just because he’s played by John Malkovich with a fussy little goatee and a good-ol’-boy drawl. Like most villains, he’s a bully up front — berating the crew to cut corners and ignore blatant safety concerns to boost the bottom line — and a spectacular coward when things go bad. Director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) makes little effort to shade in the moral grays: His BP moneymen are exactly as clueless and venal as the rig workers are noble and strong. Much of the technical talk that fills the first hour will sound like Esperanto to anyone without an engineering degree, and aside from one brutal scene of frantic, oil-choked pelicans crashing through the cabin of a rescue boat, the spill’s massive impact on the environment is mostly left to languish on the perimeter unseen.

What works almost disturbingly well is the way Berg calibrates his delivery of the disaster while still holding on to the human scale of it. Alternating between the visceral jolt of experiencing the destruction firsthand and a God’s-eye view of its root cause and effect, he brings a man-made tragedy into fiery focus — and reminds us why it deserves more than corporate fines and a few fading headlines. B+

Deepwater Horizon
  • Movie
  • 107 minutes