(2016, Peter Berg)
[4 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of Roadshow Films]
A few moments in the film reminded me of a beautifully experiential film released a few years ago by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab titled LEVIATHAN. This experimental film showing the sights and sounds of a fishing vessel against the treacherous waters off the New England coast was able to communicate through the abstraction of its immersive cinematography and aural landscapes what it's like to be aboard that vessel.
It is much less abstract but DEEPWATER HORIZON achieves a level of immersion that is needed for a story like this. I have very little knowledge of how oil rigs work. There's obviously a lot of intense engineering involved to achieve such a dangerous interaction with nature. The film is able to tell this story with so many technical details by translating them cinematically.
John Malkovich, plays the company man from BP, and he describes the operation as a massive machine with a million moving parts. The sheer complexity of the oil business is too big to comprehend - but it only takes a tiny fault in that machine to cause a cataclysmic disaster. The bigger they are, the harder they fall and when one is against the unpredictable force of nature, the risks are immeasurable. Director Peter Berg smartly shows the goings-on underneath the rig, the underwater shot of the enormous pipe in the beginning establishes the location and then shows a tiny fault: small bubbles appearing from the ocean bed.
It is this attention to detail - the tiny bubbles of pressure signalling an inevitable burst to catastrophe - that builds tension by allowing the camera to enter spaces humans cannot, similar to the way the aforementioned LEVIATHAN gives access to unseen places and perspectives. There's a bit of technical talk and jargon but even to an outsider like myself, the images of mud violently travelling through the pipes by the unforgiving force of nature needs no translation. The footage of eerily quiet but increasingly unstable activity from underwater and inside the pipes are intercut with heated squabbles up above between the higher-ups, blue-collar workers and the engineers. The operation is six weeks behind schedule and it is costing the oil company half a million dollars a day. Tension isn't just bubbling underneath. Of course, the inevitable happens: safety and sense is compromised resulting in one of the worst accidental oil spills in history.
A sizeable portion of the film is dedicated to establishing the human stories. The opening scenes consist of workers leaving home and their loved ones to travel to the rig. Although the film and the screenplay doesn't delve deeper than portraying the conflict between irresponsible company men and the workers whose lives they put in danger, the emotions still rang true. All that tension culminates to a literally explosive final act but it's the film's commitment to depicting the heroism and flaws of the people involved that is the most engaging and heartfelt. Performances all around were excellent although I wish that Gina Rodriguez was given more to do.
The combination of human-centric storytelling, high stakes, and immersive visual qualities make for riveting viewing. This is a real-life tragedy. Eleven lives were lost and it is heartbreaking, more so because it could have easily been avoided if not for the poor choices of a few men in power. The film avoids preachiness in regards to the flaws of the oil industry but the message is still clear: don't dig holes you can't fill up.