Mark Wahlberg in 'Deepwater Horizon'

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On the morning of April 20 2010, the mood onboard the vast offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon was jumpy. Or so at least it appears in the new account of the most infamous environmental disaster in modern US history. Your gut suggests the filmmakers have it right. After all, by now the crew was 43 days behind schedule in preparing to drill a tundra of seabed miles below the Gulf of Mexico, the kind of delay that makes a certain kind of person think of cutting corners.

But not electronics technician Mike Williams, played with an easy swing by Mark Wahlberg, a fast-talking lunk with a loving wife and daughter waiting at home. He is our chief point of contact in a tight-knit group of blue-collar competence. Ranged against them in a film of good guys and bad are what they call the “company men”, the BP logo stitched helpfully on to their shirts: men like Donald Vidrine, a slow-roasted site manager blown up, you assume, to 110 per cent of his actual size by John Malkovich, with a relaxed approach to safety tests and a liking for sermons on the size of the corporation.

Vidrine is also given to underlining his authority with mentions of “the bosses back in London”. All told, Deepwater Horizon is unlikely to find the BP boardroom in St James’s Square sending out for popcorn. But even if they feel aggrieved at the broad strokes of the narrative, they would have to acknowledge that making this the story of the ordinary workers is the smart dramatic play.

The script gleams with efficiency. For all the winsomeness of the Williams family, yanked heartstrings are rare, the plain fact of 126 people on a fireball-in-waiting allowed to exert its own power. When dealing with a story of dynamically positioned, semi-submersible ultra-deep oil exploration, there is also a certain genius to knowing what we need to be told and what we don’t. The language of needles jolting into the red proves universal.

And then the hiss from under the rig turns to a scream and disaster strikes. The result is nightmarishly well directed, a kind of precision chaos. If the film will have the status of a horror movie among some audiences, all of us will be left a little quiet by the sight of BP’s Leviathan in its death throes, engulfed in flames above and flames below.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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