You know how sometimes in politics things are so right they’re left [and vice versa]? This is one of those; it’s a much more political film than you would expect, and lays the blame squarely and unmistakably at the feet of British Petroleum, while holding up the workers up as paragons of straight-up American virtue and fortitude. It has the framework of a disaster film—setting up the characters and laying out the geography of the rig before the mayhem starts—but is as much about blaming corporate greed and memorializing the valiant workers as it is about providing disaster thrills.
Mark Whalberg plays an electrical engineer, which gives him access to both management and the workers. Kurt Russell—whose appearance here made me say to myself: “Thank God for Kurt Russell”—plays the manager of the rig. They are both outraged to discover that safety tests they had expected done were not done, and nothing works on the rig—including the telephones. John Malkovich adopts a Louisiana drawl and is the slimiest, and most visible, of the BP executives pushing to ignore troubling safety warnings and start drilling, in the pursuit of profit.
The film begins with recordings of legal testimony, telling you that what you’re about to see is based on actual accounts. As the action unfolds, it’s impossible to really understand all of what is happening, but the movie does an admirable job of helping you understand the basics, and especially of demonstrating how difficult it is to survive an explosion and firestorm, not to mention explosively-propelling shards of glass. It’s a shame this movie didn’t do better than it did, because it involves you in the action, makes you feel for the plight, and physical trauma, the workers went through, and the overall film serves as a monument to them, as it closes with the names of the dead. In short, it’s much better than you think it’s going to be, and deserves a better reception than it got.