By Esosa Omo-Usoh
Billed as the “worst maritime disaster in US history”, it also holds the unenviable title of being “…officially the largest accidental spill in world history” and ranks No.2 in the 13 largest oil spills in history. An estimated 206million gallons were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 85 days before the oil well was capped.
Those are intimidating statistics by any standard. However, I have represented an IOC client in an oil spill suit in court in which the Plaintiffs’ Environmental Expert alleged in his report that whilst conducting his post-spill investigation, he observed that the oil spilled into the River was “7 feet thick”! Granted that is more outlandish exaggeration than factual…but then, I digress
The events that resulted in the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred on April 20, 2010. Exactly 5 years and 1 week after, principal photography commenced on April 27, 2015 in the movie adaptation of a New York Times article on the event. The movie reunites Director, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg. The last time these two collaborated, we were gifted with the visually stunning and visceral war movie “Lone Survivor” in 2013.
Deepwater Horizon started out with cinema’s most annoying and enduring misrepresentation of sex/romance; the fallacy of morning breath. The idea that people wake up from sleep with breath fresh as mint and proceed immediately to deep throat kissing without brushing their teeth. Electronics Engineer, Mike Williams (played by Mark Wahlberg) wakes up to prepare for a 3-week stint aboard the Deepwater Horizon (a deep sea drilling oil exploration rig) but is enticed back into bed by his wife (played by Kate Hudson) to fill up conjugal supply.
Director, Peter Berg, deploys a Final Destination-ish trifecta of scenes to heighten expectations of the looming disaster that lay ahead. First off, there was the product-placement enabled scene where Williams’ daughter recreates on a mini-scale (using a canned soda and honey) the impending disaster.
Then there was the scene Kurt Russell’s Mr. Jimmy tells a BP Executive (waiting to fly out to the Rig aboard a chopper) to take off his magenta coloured tie for reasons of superstition. In the world of deep sea oil exploration, warning signs of impending disaster are colour-coded with magenta being the most dire.
The third scene saw a bird strike on the windscreen of the helicopter conveying a shift crew and BP Executives to the Rig stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. On arrival on the Rig, the team disembarks whilst another shift crew embarks to exit the Rig. An enquiry from Mr. Jimmy to a member of the outgoing team about whether tests has been carried out gets lost in the din of the chopper’s rotors but sets the tone for what we know is to come.
Amid the banters exchanged between the just arriving team and those already aboard the Rig, the audience can sense the ominous tone of the impending disaster, a feeling that’s heightened the more by the melodramatic soundtrack.
The tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon is one the audience is (or should) already be familiar with beforehand. So, Director, Peter Berg wastes no time with back stories for the characters save for the opening scene with Wahlberg’s and Hudson’s characters. There was a sense of immediacy and foreboding for the audience while for those aboard the Rig; it was business as usual save for Kurt Russell’s Mr. Jimmy and John Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine albeit their concerns were for different reasons.
As is typical with corporate suits, in a time-based project, what is paramount to them is the company’s bottom-line and how every day of delay impacts negatively on it. The exploratory drilling was already 43 days behind schedule and you don’t get to be a $186billion corporation with that kind of delay.
On the other hand, drill experts are pre-occupied with a different kind of concern. From experience, they know the dangers involved with a drill exploration plagued by faulty equipment in need of repair/maintenance and outstanding pressure tests yet to be carried out.
The clash of these two dynamics was captured in Deepwater Horizon in a language and exchanges that most audience members would not understand (except if they were Deep Ocean drilling experts) but somehow, comprehension resonated on a meta-level that pays tribute to Director Peter Berg’s deft-skills as a film maker. The Engineer-ese and buzzwords spouted by the characters did not leave you lost. They merely translated for you the emotional/psychological expediency of the situation they were caught in.
The movie could so easily have had the emotional investment needed to recreate the tragedy of the Deep Water Horizon overwhelmed by the CGI recreation of the disaster. But Peter Berg ensured that the former remained the focal point whilst the latter propped it up like an easel.
There was a method to the chaos that ensued after the geysers of mud, oil and methane gas erupted. It was like watching a giddy clown trying to balance himself on a unicycle whilst trying to pull off a multi-object juggle. The splicing of scenes of explosions, mangled metal constructions, flying projectiles and human escape and rescue often created a dizzying effect.
The scene where Wahlberg’s Mike and Gina Rodriquez’s Andrea realised they had to climb a higher platform in order to make a clean jump over the fire burning on the water below just gave a cruel twist to the expression standing knee-deep in a river and dying of thirst.
As lead actor, Mark Wahlberg gave the most engaging and impressive performance in the movie. Over the years and in several movies, Wahlberg has proved himself quite adept at playing convincingly blue collar/working man-type characters with a realism that both lends itself to audience appreciation and seems to mirror his real life persona.
There is an honesty and believability to how he portrays his characters that discounts acting and emphasizes being and embodying the minutiae of the characters. He is consistently impressive when he plays these character types. When you look through his impressive career as an actor, it is sometimes hard to believe that this is the artiste formally known as Marky Mark.
Kurt Russell and John Malkovich seemed to reprise older and grizzled versions of characters they had previously portrayed in other movies albeit with a noticeable southern twang. Russell’s Mr. Jimmy seemed like an older version of Snake Plissen from Escape From New York with the graying buzz cut of Todd from Soldier or Col. Jonathan O’Neil from Stargate. Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine seemed like a grizzled and aged version of his Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom from Con Air.
As Andrea, Gina Rodriguez shed her girly Jane from Jane the Virgin for a tomboyish upgrade reminiscent of another latina actress she shares the same surname with, Michelle Rodriguez. Only that Gina’s tomboy seemed less angsty and perhaps, more sexy than Michelle’s.
Deepwater Horizon is a movie about a deep sea drilling exploration disaster that does not need to drill deep before hitting a payload of emotions. It sucks the audience in with a language it barely understands and then ruptures a resonance that unleashes a geyser of emotions that both overwhelm and uplift the audience.