Over the last couple of years, Peter Berg has revived the American disaster film in quite an acute and visceral way. Whereas the classic disaster films of the 60s and 70s typically took place on home soil, and tested the ingenuity of American infrastructure and procedure when taken to their limits, Berg’s recent releases have played more like a variety of war film, testifying to soldiers, in the broadest sense, who are fighting on a national front that has dissolved, dispersed and moved away from the traditional ideas of frontal combat and discrete military engagements. For that reason, his outlook has been peculiarly suited to deal with environmental catastrophe and terrorism as the two most looming threats to the continuing security of the United States. While it’s the latter that holds sway in Deepwater Horizon, an atmosphere of terror also percolates throughout this depiction of the 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where a semi-submersible offshore drilling rig caught fire and sank after an uncontrollable blowout, claiming eleven lives in the process. Starting with a testimony from Mike Williams, Chief Electronics Technician, there’s an immediate sense of gravitas and facticity to Berg’s rendition, which confines itself to the day of the explosion, and takes place almost in its entirety within and underneath the Deepwater structure itself.
While the film takes some dramatic license with the events, the core narrative is true to the conditions surrounding the disaster. On the one hand you have Williams, played by Mark Wahlberg, Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell, played by Kurt Russell, and Dynamic Position Operator Andrea Fleytas, played by Michelle Rodriguez, all of whom are employed by Transocean, the company that built the rig, and all of whom are concerned about the deterioration of equipment and elasticisation of safety protocols. On the other hand, you have BP managers Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich, and Robert Kaluza, played by Brad Leland, who are renting the rig in order to access the Macondo Prospect Oil Field in the Gulf, and who insist that drilling continues despite the issues with equipment and safety. At the heart of the differences between these two parties is the question of whether or not it’s safe to extract the Deepwater’s drill and move onto the next hole, since various contradictory readings suggest that the pressure beneath the oil field and the seabed hasn’t been properly stabilised, and that releasing the drill too soon could cause an uncontrollable surge of oil up to the sea’s surface, where it might consume the rig and crew.
As it turned out, this is exactly what happened, and the film spends its first half outlining this tension, and the demands of the BP executives, before shifting to the destruction of the rig over the second half. In some ways, what follows is essentially a mechanical drama, with most of the key moments in the disaster taking place between machine components far from any direct human perception of intervention. While depictions of that machinery play a key role in the film, Berg partly deflects the interconnectivity of the rig into the procedural drama playing out around it, capturing the malleability and ductility of the workers’ rapport under extreme conditions, most of which tends to be mediated through Williams in some way. Drawing upon his documentary work for ESPN, his direction on football dramas like Ballers and Friday Night Lights, his advertisement for the Super Bowl, and his introduction to Monday Night Football, Berg continually switches between the interplay of the machinery and the muscularity of the workers’ response to it, capturing the strain and stress of collective corporeal action under pressure in a remarkably visceral and traumatic manner.
And pressure is very much the register of Deepwater Horizon, which suspends its crew between two equally unthinkable pressures that eventually converge into one sustained source of oppression. The first is the pressure of the oil beneath the earth’s crust, a geophysical fact that is often left out of films that deal with oil acquisition. Here, however, it’s made clear from the outset that the entire mechanics of the Deepwater rig are centred on contending and containing that pressure, which is quickly dissociated from the specificities of this particular oil field, and instead generalised into an expression of the overwhelming agency of the Earth itself. As a result, oil is continually personified throughout the film – as Gaia, as a dinosaur, as a supernatural monster – as the relentless pressure managed by the rig comes to stand for everything about the biophysical environment that resists our efforts to conquer and contain it. At the same time, however, the crew are faced with the escalating corporate pressure coming from BP, since the toll of properly securing the pressure of the oil field means that the crew have fallen forty-three days behind schedule, disrupting workflow and causing the visit from BP on the day the explosion occurs.
Between the enormous pressure mounting from the seabed, and the enormous pressure descending from the BP corporate structure, the crew already feel trapped before the explosion even occurs, just as the explosion merely intensifies, rather than fundamentally changes, their day-to-day procedure, which largely involves trying to figure out the best way to calibrate and contend with competing sources of pressure. In both cases, the source of pressure remains fundamentally unknowable and inconceivable, since we are never once granted access to the actual BP executives calling the shots, while the oil leak is never once capable of being visualised in a classically cinematic way, or from a stable individual perspective. At first, that stems from the disconnect between what the crew can perceive from the rig, and what is occurring at the Earth’s crust – the disconnect between the surface of the sea and the surface of the seabed – since the Deepwater isn’t like a regular oil rig, where the drill, seabed and rig are permanently locked into one integrated structure. Instead, as the film repeatedly reminds us, this is a semi-submersible, floating structure, help in place by dynamic geolocative mapping rather than a stable connection to the seabed, meaning that the tip of the drill always feels quite remote from the rest of the craft.
At first, the spill can only be felt remotely, as Berg focuses on the first eerie, granular seconds and minutes in what would eventually become an environmental catastrophe of global proportions. These involve the first infinitesimal bubbles at the seabed and traces of oil on the sea surface, along with a whole series of rumblings and murmurings that make their way across the rig at such different rates, and in such different ways, that the core of it is almost entirely consumed before those on the peripheries know that anything has gone wrong. At the same time, Berg also focuses on the first ripples of the event into the global consciousness, from the first sea bird to be coated in oil, which slams into a nearby ship, to the first remote apprehensions of the event, both in the form of the Florida Coast Guard’s first emergency call, and the first emergency call made by Williams’ wife Felicia, played by Kate Hudson, who calls 911 after a Skype session with her husband glitches unexpectedly.
All of these small details speak to the film’s desire to at least capture the progression of the spill as something that can be perceived indirectly, so the speed with which the first gush of oil bursts through and destroys the core of the rig is doubly disorienting, and impossible to visualise or fully conceptualise even in this painstaking recreation. In large part, that’s because the plume of oil defies any single state, fusing solid, liquid and gas into a chaotic miasma that quickly starts to absorb the rig before it can be absorbed or processed on its own terms. Fundamentally unrepresentable, both at the time and in retrospect, this burst of energy takes the remainder of the film through one threshold of pressure after another, ensuring that every lull just feels like a holding-space before the next threshold is surpassed. In the insatiability of the oil spill’s demands, and the inability of the crew to do anything to contain it, this second half of the film takes on the same real-time urgency and escalation of a terror attack – it’s not hard to see why Berg was chosen to direct Patriot’s Day – as any residual action heroics are subsumed into a sobering sense of American finitude and defeat.
No doubt, there is still some of the same macho bravado and macho swagger that pervades Berg’s other films here, but it’s muted and offset by the sheer intensity of this event, which seems to leave all professions of individual agency, and masculinity ingenuity, struggling in its wake. For what Deepwater Horizon makes clear is that, despite the film’s Southern-fried ambience, and Berg’s own Republican leanings, it’s impossible to do justice to the men who fought on the rig without criticizing BP in the same breath, with the result that all the film’s macho swagger are absorbed into a leftist critique almost despite themselves. In some ways, that makes for an even more convulsive experience, ideologically, than the destruction of the rig itself, as if it weren’t merely American ingenuity, but the American action film, that were coming up against its own finitude and limitations here. While Southern know-how might predominate in the opening scenes of the film, its import is utterly reversed when the BP representatives turn out to speak in a drawl so heightened and hyperbolised that they come off as plantation owners more than corporate businessman, confronting the demographic that the film seems to court with a situation in which even action heroes are the victims of conservative economic policy. For all that Deepwater Horizon might wear its Southern masculinity proudly on its sleeves then, it’s quite unusual to see a corporation, and the idea of the corporation, criticized so baldly in an American mainstream film, and only a disaster of this magnitude could have sanctioned it.
Yet, to its credit, Deepwater Horizon never presents this disaster as especially anomalous, or “returns” to a more normalised Southern or Republican reality. Instead, the film ends abruptly, on a note of PTSD, and with a collective trauma and grief that doesn’t admit of any catharsis or triumphal resolution, borne down, instead, by the toll of those who perished. Similarly, there is no climactic confrontation with BP, with a final epilogue cursorily informing us that Viridne and Kaluza were charged, then acquitted, of manslaughter, before Berg concludes with a personal interview with Williams, his legal testimony, and then with a tribute to the eleven men who passed away on board the rig. As the credits roll, the last sound we hear is a rendition of “Take Me Down,” a Southern-fried anthem by Gary Clark Jr. In the tensions between this song’s Southern hominess and Clark’s African-American ancestry, and between its country strains and more melancholy harmonica, so redolent of working-class protest anthems, these final moments involute and upheave the Southern masculinity that has been the film’s final source of solace, to the point where the Deepwater disaster seems to have pre-emptive consumed the film itself. In Armageddon, Michael Bay lighted on oil rigs as the site par excellence of deterretorialised macho potency, convincing us that the entire world could be saved by erecting such a rig, and such a display of machismo, upon an oncoming asteroid. Twenty years later, in Deepwater Horizon, the rig and drill are in disarray, and mistrustful of each other, while the South so precious to action cinema has moved deeper into the Gulf, and into its conservative substrate, making for one of the most sobering and self-questioning American films to be released during this decade.