‘Deepwater Horizon’ Review: Mark Wahlberg Plays an Unlikely Hero in a ‘Harrowing’ True Story

3 stars (out of 4)

An oil rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, causing the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. Eleven men died.

That’s the news headline. This harrowing and often-riveting drama provides a firsthand account of the catastrophe.

Mark Wahlberg Deepwater Horizon
Mark Wahlberg in 'Deepwater Horizon.' David Lee/Lionsgate

Mark Wahlberg stars as the rig’s actual chief electrician, Mike Williams. He leaves his loving wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), and precocious daughter at home to work offshore near Louisiana for a gig that’s supposed to last almost a month.

Kate Hudson Deepwater Horizon
Kate Hudson in 'Deepwater Horizon.' Lionsgate

On the very first day, his safety manager, known as “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), butts heads with a corporate BP executive (John Malkovich, hamming it up in a Southern drawl) about the drilling schedule. Maybe. The industrial talk might as well be in another language. (That is, unless anyone out there knows the difference between a “kill line” and a “drill line” and what either has to do with “mud displacement”?) The monotonous and confusing setup is a minor flaw considering the film’s blistering second half.

A test triggers a cataclysmic boom. And the Deepwater Horizon, a vast piece of machinery digging the biggest well in the world, is suddenly awash in a biblical-like flood of mud, green ooze, fire and oil. As the orange flames lick the 75-foot walls and the shrapnel flies at innocents, the peril becomes all too frightening.

Mark Wahlberg Deepwater Horizon
Mark Wahlberg in 'Deepwater Horizon.' David Lee

Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) directs the action onboard with a tense urgency. The workers can’t just run out of a burning building into fresh air or pull over on the side of the road. They’re high up above the water in isolation and they need to jump over the flames in the thick of the night just to get off the rig. Then they’re still miles from safety.

Despite the life-or-death stakes, everyone is determined to help others, get out of harm’s way and survive. In that order. Wahlberg, for example, rescues Jimmy — thrown from his shower and nearly blinded from the explosion — as well as a scrappy tech named Andrea (a strong Gina Rodriguez). Remarkably, he doesn’t come off like some chest-thumping, overly macho superhero. A word here in praise of the inimitable Wahlberg: Though he’s been a bona fide Hollywood movie star and mogul for the past two decades, he somehow still manages to convey his tough blue-collar Boston background. Good vibrations, indeed.

Gina Rodriguez Deepwater Horizon
Gina Rodriguez in 'Deepwater Horizon.' David Lee

The familiar faces and spectacular pyrotechnics aside, never for a moment will anyone mistake the Deepwater Horizon havoc with say, the destruction of fallen skyscrapers in Gotham City. This is a sober depiction of a disaster with true consequences — not an escapist, popcorn-guzzling thrill ride. Even the sight of a few stray pelicans covered in black tar trying in vain to fly away is a ghastly, heartbreaking sight.

Still, the survivors’ tales inspire. And when they appear in the closing credits and viewers see that Mike Williams doesn’t exactly have the muscular build of Mark Wahlberg, the lesson becomes obvious, if not heartening: Under pressure, ordinary people are capable of rising to the occasion.

(Deepwater Horizon opens Friday, September 30.)

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