Sometimes, real life comes up with deeper ironies than any fiction a writer could envision. For example, did you know the catastrophic fire and explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant was started by a botched safety test? If I read that in a screenplay, I would recommend changing it, because it's just too on-the-nose.
The story of the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 people and ultimately causing the biggest oil spill in the history of the world, has several such ironies attached. The biggest one is that, moments before the explosion, executives from BP and Transocean, the owners of the half-billion-dollar floating oil rig, had gathered the staff in the cafeteria to hand out a safety award to the rig's captain, Jimmy Harrell. Forty-eight hours later, the cafeteria — along with the rest of the rig — would be on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
It's a dramatic story, but not an obvious choice for a film. The mechanics of what happened that day are highly technical, and the choices that led to disaster boiled down to a series of judgment calls made by highly trained engineers trying to understand a man-made system of devilish complexity. But try director Peter Berg has, with fairly good results.
Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, a mechanic charged with keeping the Deepwater Horizon afloat in good working order. Williams has his work cut out for him, as the massive rig has been on station 100 miles southwest of New Orleans almost 50 days longer than scheduled. The phones don't work, computers controlling vital machinery are regularly showing the Blue Screen of Death, and, most ominously, many of the fire detectors are masses of sparking short circuits. Kurt Russell plays the captain, known as "Mr. Jimmy," as a tough, pragmatic sea dog who commands the respect of his crew by the purposefulness of his walk alone.
I am of the opinion that Russell automatically makes things better and should therefore be in all movies, but Deepwater Horizon doesn't really get going until John Malcovich slithers onto the screen. You can tell by the slime dripping off his elaborately casual Creole accent that BP engineer Donald Vidrine is bad news. The crew has taken to calling the troublesome hole they're digging in the floor of the ocean "The Well From Hell," and Mr. Jimmy is appalled when he hears that BP has skipped some important safety inspections in the interest of getting the over-budget project into production mode as soon as possible. The confrontation between Russell, who urges caution, and Malkovich, who wants immediate results, crackles with tension. Once things are off the rails, Malkovich fades into the background, but Russell's story is the film's most intense. Mr. Jimmy was taking a shower when the rig went boom, so Russell gets to crawl naked and flash blind through broken glass. It's a gutsy, brilliant performance that overshadows the supposed star of the show, Wahlberg.
Deepwater Horizon puts the blame for the disaster on meddling by the money men, which brings us to our final level of irony. The New York Times reported that the original director, J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year) was fired by the producers when it became apparent that he was making the story an ensemble film that examined a historical tragedy from multiple points of view. He was replaced with Friday Night Lights producer Peter Berg, whose marching orders were to make Wahlberg's character the hero of the story and to cut down on the sneering villainy of Malkovich for fear that BP would sue. Maybe that's why Deepwater Horizon seems so uneven. Since Hollywood in 2016 doesn't think a person simply doing his or her duty is enough to make for a sympathetic hero, the film starts with an interminable scene between Williams and his wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson). Making the obviously shoehorned-in scene even more awkward, Berg and his screenwriters put the first big chunk of exposition into the mouth of Williams' 10-year-old daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). Deepwater Horizon doesn't explode and sink, but there are enough flashes of brilliance here and there to know that, like its namesake, it was compromised by the incompetence of middle managers who concentrated too fiercely on the bottom line.