This week’s dramatization of a recent disaster is “Deepwater Horizon,” in which director Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Battleship”) tells how the offshore-drilling rig went kablooey in April 2010, killed 11 people, and eventually dumped 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Wisely, instead of dwelling on the economic impact (all that precious oil!) or even the environmental one (morally defensible but hard to dramatize), Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand focus on the human element: the noble workers who risked or gave their lives to help others survive, and the greedy British Petroleum executives whose corner-cutting caused the tragedy. Those are things anyone can relate to, even if we don’t understand how drilling rigs work or how the accident happened.
Berg does try to teach us. The film begins with Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) preparing for a stint on the Deepwater, saying goodbye to his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter (Stella Allen), who this very day will present a project to her school class about what her daddy does for a living. She uses a soda can and a straw to demonstrate the basic principles, and when soda suddenly shoots out of the straw uncontrollably, everyone laughs, oblivious to the omen. Other omens as Mike drives to Louisiana and takes a chopper out to the rig include a bird hitting the helicopter and a visiting executive wearing a necktie that is the same color as the Deepwater’s highest alert level. In case viewers didn’t already suspect that something was going to go wrong today.
There are 126 people on the massive rig (which weighs 50,000 tons and is longer and taller than a football field), but only two besides Mike who are of interest to us. One is Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a navigator; the other is Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), aka Mister Jimmy, the conscientious boss who objects when visiting BP execs urge hastiness in order to make up lost time on the behind-schedule project. The BP guys, played by John Malkovich and Brad Leland (Buddy Garrity on “Friday Night Lights”), are suitably oily and snaky, accentuated by Malkovich’s sniveling Cajun accent.
The movie is about half over when things go irretrievably awry and Berg shifts into the portion of the story dedicated to survival and the dazed aftermath. The action here is moderately exciting, certainly more compelling than the pre-explosion tests and arguing were, though it’s often hard to tell one man from another when they’re covered in oil and mud. As usual, Wahlberg is good as a working-class hero, and Russell shines as an earthy mentor figure. Rodriguez (playing a real person) contributes importantly as the only female voice in the film. (Kate Hudson is just Concerned Wife on Phone.) Other recognizable actors like Ethan Suplee and Dylan O’Brien (from the “Maze Runner” movies) are also onboard, their fates intermingled in one’s memory as soon as the film is over.
But ultimately, despite Berg’s best efforts, the movie can’t overcome its formulaic ordinariness. We’re engaged in the action, but hardly what you’d call emotionally invested. We hiss at the cowardly necktie-wearers whose short-sightedness caused it, but there’s nothing special about those characters or performances. Have you seen other movies about perilous situations and disastrous accidents? Then you’ve seen this one, a serviceable docudrama worth your time, maybe, but not your money.
C+ (1 hr., 47 min.; )