Deepwater Horizon (2016) Movie Review

The story of the people on board the Deepwater Horizon during the BP oil spill are the subjects of the Peter Berg feature Deepwater Horizon. As with other Berg films, it is a cinema verite style affair, with plenty of handheld shots following right over the shoulder of our heroes. That is, when indulgent crane shots aren’t taking snapshots of the glorious landscapes.


These aforementioned heroes, namely Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), are quippy, fast-talking working folk who feel something is up as soon as they fly into the rig. Williams gives us a tour of the facility as he walks about various stations, giving sly remarks as he fishes for status checks.

This setup is trim and efficient. The lighthearted jokes and bantering conversation are both contextualizing and fun enough to make us care about the characters.

Unlike in Patriots Day, the close-quarters and observational camera adds to the effect of both these early conversations and the devastation that is to follow. The camera tilts and pans as if the viewer is a hardhat-wearing member of the Deepwater crew. The handheld camera technique can prove disastrous in poor hands, but here Berg and his cinematographer Enrique Chediak make good use of the style.

While the camera is very personal, the editing is more impersonal. Cuts dance around conversations quickly. The inciting incident, occurring during pressure tests, cross-cut around multiple lines of action. The dramatic irony of the situation creates more tension than this editing does, but it all proceeds satisfactorily.

The sound design in Deepwater Horizon is easily the film’s strongest feature. The mundane rumblings of the station quickly escalate to torrential blasts of sound. All the while, each sound effect is distinct and layered smoothly so that nothing about the experience becomes garbled. This soundscape not only does its job, but it adds to the overall tonal experience as well.

The story and visuals on display in the film are largely entertaining. The character drama stumbles when the film attempts to find someone to blame, where the clear white collar villains are clearly and simply responsible for a situation that is less than clear and simple. All the same, the characters are given just enough of an introduction for us to be invested in their stories until the end.

Deepwater Horizon is an expertly handled film about those who experienced the harrowing events that caused the BP oil spill and those who did not make it. Perhaps slightly sensationalized, the film never attempts to create a fictionalized representation in which the event dwarfs those involved.  It is an intense, intimate, and visceral experience.


Deepwater Horizon: B


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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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