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Deepwater Horizon

Year: 2016
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director: Peter Berg
Producer: Lorenzo DiBonaventura
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan/Matthew Sand
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Ethan Suplee, Kate Hudson

I don't normally respond to these 'angels in grimy clothes' fables. Actors like Mark Wahlberg (as well as plenty of directors) love them because they get to do action and play with guns and be the guy who wins the day, characters everyone loves, appearing on the press circuit with the real person they're portraying and throwing the word 'hero' around with gay abandon. He did the same thing just a few years later playing a cop at the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing and lapped up the institutional kudos.

So I started watching Deepwater Horizon without very high hopes, expecting all the usual tropes (and getting them) – the loving spouse and cute family, the wife keeping the home fires burning while she's worried sick, the none-of-my-guys-die-on-my-watch motifs, etc.

But Berg, from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, does something I didn't expect but appreciated. The dialogue isn't just realistic according to how you imagine it to be among these types of people, it's deep. By that I mean they communicate concepts and thoughts in such a stripped down, no-nonsense fashion – with an appropriate amount of profanity and idiom – that if it wasn't for the faces of movie stars, it would sound like a documentary. It's naturalism taken to a degree you don't usually see in filmed drama.

Berg and Wahlberg tried to same thing again much more recently in Mile 22 and failed because the story sucked, but here it gives you a way into the disaster and what happened that makes the everyday heroes box-checking exercise much more palatable than usual.

But in short order the proverbial hitting the fan builds. As rig manager Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell), tech Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), rig pilot Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and their coworkers arrive on the titular drilling platform, the two company men aboard have sent a test team home early. Jimmy wants to know why, issuing missives and orders and trying to make sure everything is secure and ignore the bad feeling it's all giving him, prepared to stand on corporate toes if necessary.

To the film's credit – and the same way the realistic dialogue elevates it – the on-board execs (one played by John Malkovich doing an accent that teeters just this side of silly) aren't moustache twirling villains telling Jimmy to cut corners or its his job. They're trying to get back on schedule and it's his job to make sure it's all done safely.

But as a couple of scenes of inventive VFX showing us the problem going on way down in the pipes reveal, it's partly the fault of BP wanting to hurry along and partly the fault of geology, outlets plugged up so they don't give correct readings and people not realising what's going wrong thousands of feet below them.

Everyone goes about their business when the tests come back clear – Mike and Andrea go back to their stations to joke with their peers, Mr Jimmy goes to have a relaxing shower and the drilling platform crew settle back in their wire-protected cage to finish the job.

But pretty soon dials starts to move into the red, digital readouts start racing up through higher numbers and news footage shown all over the world shows us what happened next. The whole rig didn't just blow its stack from the blockage down below, it exploded altogether, becoming a pyre of flame on the ocean.

Williams, Jimmy and the others have to try to get past exploding pipes and structures, pillars of flame, burning oil and wrecked machinery to find each other, regroup and get off the rig with the aid of the nearby container ship.

There are scenes of the coast guard springing into action like a well oiled machine (another hallmark of these everyday hero movies is that the armed and first response services are slickly professional and no-nonsense) and the race is on.

From there it's a very effective disaster movie. There were probably a few creative liberties taken owing to the way real life stubbornly refuses to play out in a three act structure complete with a heart-stopping climax, but the visuals, effects and sets are pretty astounding in hindsight. A lot of it was no doubt VFX, but it seems like entire rooms or buildings are on fire or toppling with bleeding people running desperately amid them trying to get away.

The depth of character carries you effortlessly to the disaster porn, and the visceral thrills take you the rest of the way.

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