Huge dose of American heroism

REVIEW / ACTION DRAMA

DEEPWATER HORIZON (PG13)

107 minutes/Opens tomorrow/3/5 stars

The story: In April 2010, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon is engaged by British company BP to drill a well in the Gulf of Mexico. Safety concerns have delayed the project by 43 days. The oil rig's honcho Jimmy Harrell (played by Kurt Russell) and chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) are reluctant to drill the well. Pressured by BP officials Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and Robert Kaluza (Brad Leland), they proceed anyway, causing the worst oil disaster in United States history.

This movie is not a fictionalised account of the 2010 BP oil disaster, which resulted in the black liquid polluting the sea for 87 days and the deaths of 11 oil rig crew members. It is the dramatisation of the real thing, using real names.

Director Peter Berg had no need to fictionalise the disaster just so he could write in villains to provide focus and tension. The actual catastrophe had ready-made "villains" in BP employees Vidrine and Kaluza, who apparently nixed an all- important cement test and pressured the drilling of the well to go ahead.

As Vidrine, Malkovich oozes so much smarmy obnoxiousness that his culpability seems clear even to people without the slightest clue about the disaster. His scenery-chewing performance - the most enjoyable thing about a movie that is designed to make grown men cry at the wanton waste of lives - overshadows those of Russell and Wahlberg as good ol' American heroes determined to do the right thing rather than succumb to big-money pressure.

Director Berg is in his element playing to such black-and-white absolutes of good and evil. His story here of awesome, brave Americans cleaning up the mess created by corporate greed is of a piece with Lone Survivor, his hit 2013 movie about valiant US soldiers going after the Taleban.

Harrell, affectionately known as Mr Jimmy, and Williams are portrayed here as cautious men alert to every danger (fire alarms that need new batteries and teeth that need flossing), so they are depicted as blameless. This may well be true of those two men in real life, but the movie, as a result, suffers from a lack of more nuanced characters.

So what? After all, this is all about the tense action scenes of men - and one woman (Gina Rodriguez as the rig's deputy dynamic positioning officer Andrea Fleytas) - trying in vain to prevent a disaster and then fleeing for their lives.

Marketed as a disaster flick in the vein of The Towering Inferno (1974) and San Andreas (2015), it duly delivers crashing machinery, big explosions and bigger acts of individual bravery - Williams makes sure he does not leave anyone behind; Mr Jimmy ploughs on despite being temporarily blind in one eye and pierced everywhere on his body with glass shards.

What the film fails to do is give viewers - most of whom have never been on an oil rig - a sense of the Deepwater Horizon rig's internal architecture when chaos breaks out. One is never sure where the escape routes are or where the crew are running off to.

All that sound and fury signify only more sound and fury and, perhaps, also American heroism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Huge dose of American heroism'. Print Edition | Subscribe