Deepwater Horizon’ salutes real-life courage

Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams takes charge amid the chaos.
Photo: Summit Entertainment / Courtesy

Three stars

Deepwater Horizon Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez. Directed by Peter Berg. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

It’s not hard to guess what to expect from Deepwater Horizon, Hollywood’s depiction of the 2010 oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and dumped some 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Basically, it’s a cross between The Towering Inferno and Titanic, offering the spectacle of mass destruction while watching a handful of characters struggle to survive. Both of those films received Oscar nominations for Best Picture (Titanic even won), and this effects-driven paean to courage and fortitude might follow suit; if nothing else, it offers a real-world alternative to all the recent superhero epics.

Deepwater Horizon’s primary asset is Mark Wahlberg’s decidedly human-scale performance as electrical technician Mike Williams, whose efforts to save his colleagues’ lives always seem entirely credible. Wahlberg plays Williams not as a fearless badass, but as a man who doesn’t let being scared get in the way of his instinct to help. He’s supported by a screenplay (courtesy of Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand) that works to faithfully replicate how engineers would respond to a nightmare like this, without worrying too much about whether viewers will grasp every detail. It all feels distressingly accurate.

Less successful, though, is the film’s attempt to provide a human-sized villain who represents BP, the multinational corporation responsible for the disaster. CEO Tony Hayward was the public face of BP at the time, but Deepwater Horizon opts to demonize a BP rep named Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), first portrayed as grotesquely unconcerned about safety regulations if they threaten to slow down production, then turned into an outright coward following the explosion. Emotionally satisfying though this craven display is, it undermines director Peter Berg’s efforts at verisimilitude. Berg and Wahlberg previously teamed up three years ago for the often shamelessly manipulative Lone Survivor. This time, with the exception of the film’s designated scapegoat, they keep it real.

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