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‘Deepwater Horizon’ review: Entertaining look at oil-rig tragedy

A story set on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which exploded during April 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Credit: Lionsgate

PLOT The story of the offshore rig responsible for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

CAST Mark Wahlberg, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson

RATED PG-13 (intense scenes)


BOTTOM LINE Peter Berg’s disaster film about a real tragedy aims only to entertain, and succeeds. Larger lessons, however, are in short supply.

Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” named for the doomed oil rig that exploded in 2010 and killed 11 crew members, can be summed up as a modern-day version of James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Both films tell the story of real-life ocean disasters whose victims were largely average working folk, and both films heap blame upon the higher-ups who cut corners and cost lives. One difference is that “Titanic” was a grand adventure-romance set in a distant past, while “Deepwater Horizon” mines a very recent tragedy for entertainment.

It succeeds, no question. “Deepwater Horizon” begins, as every disaster film must, with chillingly mundane scenes of workaday life. Electrician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg, in his likable everyman mode) awakes to a frisky wife played by Kate Hudson. Rig operator Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) can’t start her vintage Mustang. Manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) argues with two snotty reps from British Petroleum. They all commute by helicopter, which is to say this is just another day at the office — albeit a massive, floating one with a roughly six-mile drill depth.

Once we’re on the rig, we hear the crackle of technical jargon (Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand wrote the script) and we can almost feel the grit on the machinery. Despite the complexities of oil-drilling, the conflict is clear and simple: Jimmy, the seasoned veteran with a sixth sense for danger, wants to halt work, while Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), the BP company man, wants to keep pushing.

When the Deepwater finally blows, it does so with a vengeance: bolts become bullets, oil overwhelms the crew, fireballs roar from every crevice. Lifeboats fill up quickly, and some workers plunge desperately into the now-flaming Gulf of Mexico.

“Deepwater Horizon” is a much nimbler and better-made film than Berg’s heavy-handed “Lone Survivor” or his dopey “Battleship.” The oil-covered pelican that crashes blindly into a room, for instance, provides a nifty jolt but also foreshadows the environmental catastrophe to come. Overall, there’s something discomfiting about this tragedy becoming a multiplex spectacle — too soon, perhaps? — but “Deepwater Horizon” is slick entertainment that works like a well-oiled machine.


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