The climactic images of an American flag rippling against darkness and fire in the brilliant new film Deepwater Horizon recall many a war film, or indeed the writing of The Star Spangled Banner itself, near Fort McHenry as the War of 1812 raged. But this is not a war film. Or is it?
The civilians who populate the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana are military-like types — practical engineers, men who solve problems in real time under immense pressure, some of it literal and lethal. They make their living with their hands, wear casual clothing, drink bad coffee out of paper cups, and power America.
In short, these are manly men, played by manly actors like Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell, as two of the many technically savvy guys who keep America’s oil flowing. As we flick on a light switch or pump gas into our cars, rarely do we think about how our carbon-based energy system works, or the ingenuity, skill, and courage of those who bring us cheap, abundant fuel. Deepwater Horizon urges us to spare a thought for these people, most of them men, who make the country work, often at huge risk to themselves. Until the world figures out a way to operate on puppy dog dreams and unicorn sighs, carbon-based fuels will remain the foundation of our existence, the sine qua non without which earth-mother poets, sullen America-hating vegan performance artists, and the private jets that shuttle Al Gore to ecological conferences would find it difficult to operate.
Eleven men died in the explosion of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 26, 2010, and dozens more were lucky to escape with their lives. And yet the media simply shrugged at the human toll of this event and rushed off to cover the damage to marine life in the resulting oil spill of 210 million gallons. Today, the media reaction looks like a bit of an overreaction –nature has a way of erasing even man’s biggest mistakes, and life in the Gulf of Mexico has largely bounced back — but such topics are outside the scope of the movie.
The early scenes are both tight with foreboding of events to come and terrifically engaging in their own right: Director Peter Berg, one of the handful of unabashedly pro-American filmmakers working in Hollywood today (he also made the big-screen Friday Night Lights and executive-produced the spinoff TV series, as well as the films Lone Survivor and the sneakily patriotic Hancock) smartly guides us through a bewildering subculture of earthy technicalities involving offshore oil production. “Mud,” for instance, a substance used to block the oil from exploding out the pipelines, turns out to be a critical ingredient that must be carefully monitored and which can wind up spewing all over men attempting to control and measure it. All such operations require cost considerations as well, embodied by a sinister but canny figure, the on-site BP boss played by John Malkovich doing a sly Cajun accent. The Malkovich character is the heavy of the piece, but he also has a point: Safety is vital, but the company must also weigh profitability. So must all of us. We could enhance the safety of our cars by cladding them in military-grade armor, but we don’t because the cost would be unacceptable. There is no definitive answer to where the line between cost and safety lies, and though BP was on the wrong side of it in the Deepwater disaster, that wasn’t necessarily obvious as the first dominoes began to fall.
The film’s final act is simply astonishing and thrilling: The early 1970s disaster epics, which were the box-office kings of the day, suffered from bad scripts and cardboard characters, but the special effects alone were enough to create a crashingly good experience for the audience. Today’s effects are immeasurably more effective. Berg puts you right there as the rig turns into hell, always with an eye on the bravery, resourcefulness, and level-headedness of the survivors, some of whom are seen jumping through fire and into the Gulf to preserve their lives. Deepwater Horizon is an overwhelming success, the best film of the year so far, as it showcases two things that are movies at their finest. First, it’s an immense, immersive experience — a popcorn picture that genuinely grabs you and makes you feel the catharsis of surviving unspeakable catastrophe. Second, and even more important, it makes you see something you could never fully have appreciated before — the hidden parallel world of some of America’s finest. It’s a film that leaves you wrenched and bowled-over but also awed, having lent you a profound sense of gratitude for our country’s everyday heroes.