The poetry of pure action: Peter Berg's 'Deepwater Horizon' is a breathtaking telling of the 2010 oil rig explosion

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I've rarely encountered such pure poetry of action as in the opening minutes of Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg's exciting and emotionally wrenching thriller about the oil rig explosion that in 2010 set off the worst oil-spill disaster in U.S. history.

After a prologue that introduces us to the protagonists - real-life Deepwater Horizon heroes and survivors Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), Jimmy "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), plus Williams' wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson) - Berg's camera takes us along on a helicopter ride across shimmering water to the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

We're flying with several members of a fresh work crew on their way to start a three-week shift on the oil rig.

It sits about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, a man-made behemoth that rises high above the surface in an interlocking system of platforms, steel girders, and pipes.

Our first encounter with the rig is impossibly intimate, the camera gently gliding around the ugly contraption as if caressing a lover. While most blockbusters of this kind are weighed down with bombastic music announcing their grandiose intent, Deepwater Horizon has the elegance to forgo that.

Berg's sequence of shots feels all the more poignant since we know the platform will soon be engulfed in fire, its steel girders broken and twisted beyond hope. (He no doubt was aware that his post-disaster imagery also recalled the scene at the twin towers after the Sept. 11 attacks.)

In a counterpoint to the visual lyricism, we're also hit with a rising din - a helicopter engine, the staccato scratching of a radio transmission, the cacophony of voices in conversation.

The conversations continue as the passengers disembark and flow one by one toward their appointed workstations, past old friends and coworkers, poker pals, fishing buddies, fellow muscle-car enthusiasts.

The film doesn't bother with characters' backstories, or care if we can understand each conversation. As in Robert Altman's films, overlapping dialogue evokes a social situation, an interlocked fabric of people. With a working crew of more than 120, it's a bustling community.

Not everyone is beloved on the platform. We also meet a handful of BP executives, led by the perpetually sneering Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), a rude, crude bossman who doesn't give a fig about safety.

From here, the terrifically efficient Deepwater Horizon (just 107 minutes long) covers a lot of ground, including a spectacular set of explosions, an inferno, and astonishing acts of bravery by the rank and file.

Instead of one big story line, we get little vignettes set in different parts of the rig, capturing the textures, colors, and sounds of human industry. As disaster strikes, Berg dutifully returns to each group.

Several men are stationed around the pipe that we come to learn is secured below by a faulty cement job. When high pressure sends up an explosion of mud, they're thrown around like rag dolls. The steel-reinforced control room housing their supervisors is almost flattened.

High above on the bridge, Fleytas, the sole female employee, pilots the platform - it's not a fixed structure, but a semi-submerged ship.

Below decks, additional workers toil. Some will be drowned by mud, others later killed by fire.

A minimalist narrative revolves around a series of conflicts among the BP executives, who are concerned that the rig is behind schedule, and the characters played by Wahlberg and Russell, concerned for safety.

Recounted at breakneck speed in the most direct way imaginable, Berg's film enthralls the viewer with the sheer immediacy of its telling. There's virtually no mediation here, no intellectualization, no reflection, no editorializing, just incredible camera work, heart-stopping effects, and no-nonsense performances from the all-star cast.

Berg's film works because it excludes anything that is not immediately involved in the actual explosion, including the full range of its causes or its long-term consequences. But this, the movie's chief asset, is also its downfall.

Stop and ask yourself for just a moment if this is the best way to memorialize the deadly fiasco.

The film ends with a tribute, in words and images, to the 11 men who perished that day. Is that enough?

tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736


MOVIE REVIEW

Deepwater Horizon

3 stars (Out of four stars)

Directed by Peter Berg. With Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, and Gina Rodriguez. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and some profanity).

Playing at: Area theaters.