It’s often said that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is two books in one: a monograph about the whaling industry of the 19th century, and Ishmael’s retelling of the voyage aboard Captain Ahab’s Pequod. If you’re interested in a contemporary account of how and why whales were almost extirpated from the Planet Ocean and a ripping good sea yarn, put aside many hours to get through Melville’s story of madness and corruption – which is a common thread through tales of sea. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the first 4 Seasons of Sealab 2021, all feature prideful captains making a bad decisions while chasing their own particular white whales (in order: immortality, revenge, sanity).
Deepwater Horizon is a real-life story that follows the same model as Moby Dick, as it is two movies in one: a monograph about the offshore oil and gas drilling industry, and the story of the explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon, the “captain” this time the greedy, vile British Petroleum company and the obsession being profit. For those of you who don’t remember this the events of April 20, 2010 (seriously, what the hell is it with that particular day in April?), here’s the quick retelling: After cutting corners to save money, an oil rig owned by TransOcean called the Deepwater Horizon had an accident that caused an explosion. Not everyone got out alive, and it led to an oil spill where literally months of jackassery from the U.S. government and BP followed, and the environmental affects persist to this day.
The movie is compelling as hell. We start learning the nuts and bolts of how an oil rig works, how the people who work on them live (something I’ve wondered for years), and the decisions that are made to keep them running. We get a real feel that it’s barely controlled chaos. Mark Wahlberg as the rig’s (technically, the ship’s – oil rigs are ships! Thanks for that fact movie!) chief electrician, the real-life Mike Williams, is having difficulty keeping things operational as everything is breaking, from the satellite TV to the alarms. Kurt Russell plays the rig’s nominal captain, who has to balance safety with the demands of their client, British Petroleum – played to oily effect (ha! See what I did there!) by John Malkovich – who wants to move the Deepwater Horizon to its next prospecting location, and doesn’t have time for all of your safety falderal, Mr. Wahlberg.
It’s basically like watching an intense poker match, and it’s really, really good. Kurt Russell is his usual badass self (has Kurt Russell ever turned in a bad performance?) and becomes half of this story’s John McClane (more on that in a minute), and John Malkovich really sells the corporate greed that manifests itself in the offices of BP. Another great performance is turned in by Ethan Suplee, who plays the harried drilling floor supervisor and his interplay with Malkovich is also pretty great.
It’s at Ethan Suplee’s exit that we start movie No. 2 and it becomes a big ol’ disaster flick in the vein of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Hatches have to be sealed, sacrifices have to be made, sexism causes people to make bad decisions – the tragedy, of course, is that this isn’t an Irwin Allen film. All of this stuff actually happened. Kurt Russell’s Mr. Jimmy and Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams team up to form an action team no less powerful than the aforementioned John McClane of the Die Hard films, including and up to jumps off an exploding structure and broken glass. While the camera work and effects are outstanding, it’s here, for me at least, that we lose the intensity of the first part of the film, which is an odd thing to say when you’re trying to escape a burning oil rig. It’s fantastic film work, don’t get me wrong, I’m just someone who thinks the lead up to a disaster is more interesting than the disaster itself.
It’s a very angry film, and rightfully so. The events leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster could have been prevented up and down the chain of command, but ultimately, what led to it was overwhelming greed. At one point, after a character makes it back to the mainland, he is assaulted by the father of another, filled with rage and grief over the lack of information, caused the sublimated knowledge of the loss of his son. People yell at each other over the absurdity of a multibillion dollar corporation worrying about something that won’t even cut into .05 percent of their profits. At the end of the film, we are shown portraits of the men who died, and we are then presented with the fact that no one really paid for the deaths. It’s a quiet, subtle anger that leads us out of the theater.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gina Rodriguez who plays Andrea Fleytas and Kate Hudson who plays Felicia Williams, the wife of Mark Wahlberg’s character. Both handle their roles admirably, with Ms. Rodriguez playing a beleaguered deck officer and Ms. Hudson playing at, well, worry. It’s definitely a film that ramps the testosterone to 11, but they stand out in strong performances.
The film doesn’t cover the almost six months of BP standing around with their dicks in their hand trying to get the oil to stop spilling, but we do get a taste of the what happened afterwards. At one point an oil-soaked pelican (the state bird of Louisiana) goes through its death throes on the bridge of the ship meant to do the safety tests. It’s a nice bit of symbolism Melville himself would be proud. I strongly recommend checking out the Ocean Conservancy to see what you can do to help the Gulf of Mexico recover.
In all tales of the sea, from Jonah and the whale, to Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” the sea is a merciless, unforgiving force, and here it’s no different – the best you can do is hope to survive. In this case, it’s not really the explosion and fire the crew has to survive, it’s corporate greed that is ultimately the real killer. The film makes that case in a tight, exciting 107 minutes. It’s well worth your time, hopefully, it’s a message that won’t be lost on people after the lights go up.