"Deepwater Horizon," a mighty cinematic conflagration from the director Peter Berg, revisits the tragic events of April 20, 2010, when a Transocean-owned, British Petroleum-leased oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members and precipitating one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Ripped from the headlines but largely shorn of context, the movie is both a sobering memorial to the fallen and a harrowing chronicle of survival, anchored by Mark Wahlberg's performance as a blue-collar hero thrust into the jaws of a horrifying man-made catastrophe.
If that sounds at all familiar, it's because it more or less sums up Berg's previous film, "Lone Survivor," in which Wahlberg played a U.S. Navy SEAL trapped with his comrades in post-9/11 Afghanistan. There's every reason to suspect the description might also apply to "Patriots Day," Berg and Wahlberg's upcoming drama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
It's a curious thing, thinking about real-world tragedy in terms of blockbuster templates and franchise potential (if there's ever a DVD box set, I expect it to be titled "The Wahl-Berg Trilogy" and decorated with American flags). And it shouldn't necessarily reassure us that, for sheer visceral and emotional satisfaction, the template largely works.
In both this film and his previous one, Berg has met the challenges of the assignment with blunt sincerity, striking verisimilitude and a shrewd understanding of his talents and limitations. And in the case of "Deepwater Horizon," which runs a swift, frenzied 107 minutes, he seems to have perfected, or at least streamlined, his formula. Swift, no-nonsense and pummelingly intense, this is the big-budget Hollywood disaster flick on a CrossFit regimen and a Paleo diet — a hellish cataclysm that never risks overstaying its welcome.
Adapting the New York Times' exhaustive report on the Deepwater Horizon's final hours, Matthew Michael Carnahan (who wrote Berg's "The Kingdom") and Matthew Sand run an admirably tight narrative ship. Mike Williams (Wahlberg), a Transocean electronics technician, gets barely a moment's domestic tranquility with his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter before heading out for a three-week stint aboard the rig. He and his fellow crew mates — the other one we get to know is Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a 23-year-old dynamic positioning officer and the rig's lone female employee — are helicoptered out to the Deepwater Horizon, which is stationed above the Macondo well some 41 miles off the Louisiana coast.
The master of the rig is Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), whose insistence on safety and demand for much-needed repairs have earned him the adoration of his crew and the scorn of the Big Oil reps on board. When Mr. Jimmy declares, "This rig is broken," the unambiguously villainous BP executive Don Vidrine (John Malkovich) shoots back that they're too far behind schedule (43 days) and too far over budget ($50 million) to worry about cutting corners. Clearly never having seen "Titanic," he orders the crew to proceed full steam ahead with a series of high-pressure drilling tests that will lead to the well's fateful blowout.
The contrast between the two factions — the good workers operating the rig versus the greedy fat cats calling the shots — is simplistically drawn and, by all accounts, completely, infuriatingly accurate. And the actors have been cast along such plain, easy-to-read lines — Wahlberg with his sturdy good-guy affect, Russell with his righteously clenched jaw, Malkovich with his insinuating Louisiana drawl — that on a gut level, you know exactly what's happening in "Deepwater Horizon" even when you understand absolutely nothing that's happening in "Deepwater Horizon."
The script is a gloriously impenetrable thicket of maritime lingo and technical terminology. At times Berg and his actors will make a token effort to educate the laypeople in the audience on the mechanics of pressure levels and blowout preventers. Yet all the authentic-sounding science talk is clarified only intermittently — and at times, it's further confused — by the film's excitable cutaways to the rig's gurgling internal machinery, or to the ominous rumblings on the ocean floor 5,200 feet below. (The movie's entire first half is like one long refrain of "That doesn't sound good.")
But once mud begins to seep up through the floor of the rig, and the pipes burst and release slushy, gaseous geysers of oil, "Deepwater Horizon" stops giving the slightest damn whether you've been following along or not; it picks you up and propels you forward with hurtling, unstoppable force. The characters' incomprehension merges with your own as the front-line workers are assailed by shrapnel and thrown about like rag dolls. Russell, who gets second billing but is easily the movie's MVP, finds himself trapped in the scariest shower scene since "Psycho." And that's all before the gas ignites and the fireballs erupt, sending the survivors toward the lifeboats as the derrick and soon the entire rig are engulfed in flames. There will be blood, for sure.
The final inferno, belching fire and smoke into the night sky, is nightmarish and surreal, and it's filmed with inky beauty by cinematographer Enrique Chediak, who favors an energetic but never excessively shaky camera throughout. Berg has decisively left the frivolity of "Battleship" behind him, and his sense of film craft evinces a basic respect for the medium and his real-life subjects alike. You don't get the sense, watching "Deepwater Horizon," that its perils have been pumped up for effect, or that the production has been gunked up with too much CGI. (That the filmmakers went to the trouble of building a massive, 85%-to-scale replica of the rig surely accounts for much of the movie's realistic feel.)
Berg's talents have always tended toward the experiential rather than the analytical. Just as "Lone Survivor" didn't trouble itself with the moral complexities of the war on terror, so "Deepwater Horizon" will answer few of your burning questions about America's crippling oil dependency or the staggering ecological and economic fallout of the BP spill. (For all that, you should seek out Margaret Brown's excellent 2014 documentary, "The Great Invisible.")
What Berg brings to the movie is a fundamental respect for process and for the sight of good men (and one good woman) hard at work. "Deepwater Horizon" may lack the unsentimental, egalitarian perspective of Paul Greengrass' 9/11 drama "United 93," but it has something of that movie's in-the-moment, matter-of-fact compassion. It recognizes that people caught up in extreme circumstances are often exalted not through sentimental speeches and forced, humanizing gestures but through the professionalism and sense of duty they evince in their darkest moments.
At the same time, the movie duly acknowledges that not everyone on board acted so nobly, and while the four years of legal proceedings against BP are left off-screen, the company's guilt and its destructive negligence are stamped in every frame. If Berg doesn't go especially deep here, he nonetheless strikes a raw nerve of outrage. "Deepwater Horizon's" shock-and-awe spectacle is over before you realize it, but its anger burns, clarifies and lingers.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing imagery, and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release