Directed by Peter Berg

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand

107 minutes, rated M

Confusion reigns here and that’s just the dialogue, much of which is unintelligible. Director Peter Berg is careful in the set-up to try to explain the science of what happened on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in 2010, but once the blowout occurs, dialogue becomes superfluous.  

Eleven men died in the Gulf of Mexico when the rig exploded on April 20, setting off the worst oil spill in American history.  It would be nice if the picture told us why, but that’s not really the purpose. This is Titanic with more fire and oil, and no class divisions. John Malkovich does the villain role as a BP executive who pushes Transocean, owners of the rig, to pull out before the well is safely locked off. Kurt Russell is Mr Jimmy, the heroic Transocean rig manager who tries to quell BP’s greed. Of all the unintelligibles, Malkovich takes the biscuit, by adding a Louisiana bayou accent so thick it comes with a mess of crawfish. His character is like Bruce Ismay in Titanic – menace and threats and first into the life rafts.

One difference is that this disaster happened in our own time and with plenty of witnesses. There was a presidential commission of inquiry and a bunch of litigation, so the testimony of the 115 crew members who survived is on record. The New York Times reporters David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul used those testimonies as well as interviews to write a detailed report published December 25, 2010. That is the basis for the script by Mathew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand – but of course, they don’t just stick to the facts.

The changes tell us more about Hollywood than about the Deepwater Horizon. Without spoiling the plot, I will put it this way: there were a number of heroic acts that day, including some by Mike Williams, the electrician played by Mark Wahlberg. There were also many mistakes, some by characters who appear blameless in the movie. The most obvious, if the NYT article is correct, concerns Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), who was a 23-year-old bridge officer that day.  The article raised doubts about her conduct, but the movie ignores them. I guess that’s because the producers wanted a sympathetic female character and there weren’t many choices on a boat full of hairy blokes.

Wahlberg is the star, of course, and the script sticks close to the NYT account of what happened to Mike Williams.  An introduction shows him at home with sexy wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and cute daughter Sydney (Stella Allen), before a chopper whips him out to the rig for a 21-day stretch. Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell) is on the same chopper, a wizened veteran with walrus whiskers and a close-cropped head. Russell resurrects more than a bit of Snake Plissken, his tough guy from Escape From New York, to play this character – but that’s fun. Russell has the kind of acting chops that disaster films thrive on: nail the bad guys, fight the fires, save the girl, kick some ass.  He chews his lines too, but not in the self-conscious way of Malkovich.

Once all the mistakes are lined up, ready to coalesce, Peter Berg shows us why they hired him. He’s an expert at high-octane action on a grand scale, with all the trimmings. He’s been working in television since Battleship (2012) and Lone Survivor (2013) but his heart is in epic big screen mayhem. This one is just as driven by computer effects, but they’re more realistic, grounded in reality. He gives us a terrifying sense of what it might have been like on board that day. There appears to be some commitment to the men and women who were there, albeit without a similar commitment to showing the disastrous effects of the oil spill. This is a good ol’ boy movie, not a green treatise. 

BP does not come out of it well, but nor should they. Transocean fares better – which is too kind, given the number of maintenance and safety checks they failed to carry out.   As man-made disaster films go, this is a skilful effort, with a gripping second half. It could have been much more political, but that was never going to happen.