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A realistic, classic hero story
TURNING a recent real-life tragedy into a big-budget disaster movie may not sound like the best idea in the world - especially when the loss of lives and sensitivities of the actual communities involved remain relatively fresh in the memory - but then again, revisiting an incident that packs such a strong visual and emotional punch makes it a natural fit for Hollywood executives on the lookout for compelling stories to tell.
Deepwater Horizon recounts the final hours of the oil rig at the centre of the biggest environmental disaster in US history. The film, directed by Peter Berg, is based on a New York Times article that detailed the catastrophic failures - both mechanical and human - leading to a blowout of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and the massive fireball that crippled the rig on the night of April 20, 2010.
The film, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, tells the story from the perspective of an electronics technician aboard Deepwater Horizon, a sophisticated semi-submersible drilling rig that had the ability to manoeuvre in waters 2,400 metres deep and drill for oil at much greater depths.
Given the amount of complex technical information thrown at us - the drilling process, the jobs of various engineers on board and the long list of safety measures involved while drilling a well - the film's main purpose, at least in the first half, is to keep viewers interested. That's where Mark Wahlberg - one of the most popular action stars around and a guy who certainly knows how to command our attention - comes in.
Like the scenes in a war film that follow each soldier's routine as he prepares for a climactic battle, the early portion of Deepwater Horizon is spent introducing us to characters with key roles. Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, a blue-collar worker whose job involves staring at a screen, punching a few buttons every so often and questioning the competence of oil company executives.
We first meet him at home with wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter (Stella Allen) as he prepares to head off for a three-week stint on the rig. Conveniently, his daughter goes through a class presentation with him on what dad does for a living. "That oil is a monster," she says as she demonstrates the effects of high-pressure drilling using a can of soda.
The other member of the crew given a cursory home life is Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), an officer on the rig's bridge. She's shown to have a steady temperament and love of old cars. The rig is led by crew chief Jimmy Hassell (Kurt Russell), a grizzled veteran with a healthy disregard for the corporate suits from BP (the company that is leasing the rig) who are accompanying them on the fateful trip.
The role of villain - if there is one - is played by Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), a condescending executive who presses Jimmy and his crew to speed up the work (and cut corners on safety procedures) as they are already weeks behind schedule and 50 million dollars over budget. A seal on the well is not properly checked, pressure builds up in the drill pipes and then all hell breaks loose. Scenes of dark water, gushing mud and huge fireballs follow - the explosion and fire aboard the rig could be seen from satellites in space.
The second half of the film focuses on the heroism of the people on board as they try to help the injured and save themselves. It ends with a sobering postscript informing viewers that the blowout lasted for 87 days before being capped. It also lists the names of the people who died and reveals the findings of the investigation that followed. Realistic and riveting in parts, Deepwater Horizon will resonate with audiences interested in a classic hero story - thankfully, there's not a caped or spandex-clad superhero in sight.