For better or worse, Hollywood has always been the ledger of record for America’s historical events, the silvery notebook in which the country’s worst tragedies are catalogued and parsed, not in studious documentary form, but in personal and heroic tales of human survival. A slew of films chronicle the events of 9/11, of Benghazi and of downed Black Hawks.
Recent entries include Sully, a film about the man who flew an aeroplane into a family of geese and then landed on a river, and now we have Deepwater Horizon, which is the dramatic account of the time an oil rig popped a nut and spewed unimaginable quantities of grease into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the biggest environmental disasters in history, in which eleven people died, it looks more than a little out of place on tube posters next to Bridget Jones’s Baby.
Deepwater Horizon wasn’t actually an oil rig – one of the many details this film teaches – rather it was a semi-submersible, dynamically-positioned, floating mega-boat, with four massive underwater propellers holding the whole thing in place. The purpose of the facility was to bore through the ocean floor and tap an underground oil reservoir that would then be plugged in preparation for the real drilling. This, of course, never happened. The events that led to the rig exploding in a colossal fireball visible from more than 40km away are many, technical and confounding.
The film makes some small attempt to communicate what went wrong – at one point a pen is stabbed into a shaken up coke can – but for the most part it focuses on the human drama rather than the mechanics of the disaster. So we’ve got Kurt Russell angrily stomping around on deck in the hours before the rig erupts, demanding to know whether a very specific type of safety check had taken place. We know something is wrong, not because we understand a single word coming out of Kurt Russell’s mouth, but because his moustache is crawling around his face in clear annoyance at his BP paymasters’ refusal to heed his warnings.
Whiteboards are repeatedly erased and filled with hasty sketches of holes, feed lines and ominous pockets of gas, while the overweight executives in neat shirts insist that nothing will explode and everybody should simply get back to work. Wahlberg is the action-man of the piece, over whose shoulder we see most of the events unfold. His Skype-calls to his wife and daughter back home form the emotional stakes for anyone who doesn’t particularly care about oily seagulls and irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
The adherence to serious biography is admirable in these opening scenes, but in truth, watching the everyday operations of the rig is pretty dull, and cinematic tension is only found in the literal rising and falling of pressure gauge needles. And then, once Deepwater Horizon actually starts exploding, it does so for the entire remainder of the film, erupting in a spectacular fashion that eventually exhausts the eyeballs.
The relentless corporate greed of BP is held up as the monstrous enemy of the story (there’s no doubt the studio’s lawyers worked overtime on this one) and the human focus adds another dimension to a disaster more extensively covered as an environmental one. But big-screen blockbusters often make for ill-fitting tributes – in particular, seeing the names and pictures of those who died fade into view as soulful country music plays is an unforgivably clumsy piece of filmmaking – but Deepwater Horizon’s real problem is that it’s boring right up until the moment a murderous fireball appears.