Lawrence Toppman

Audiences enter dangerous waters with ‘Deepwater Horizon’

If you’ve wondered what it’s like to be aboard a floating rig 40 miles from shore when a torrent of burning oil turns it into a death trap, “Deepwater Horizon” is for you.

I’m not being snarky: The film’s well-paced and well-acted, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it most of the way. I faltered as projectile followed projectile and explosion topped explosion, yet even then the excitement held up.

But it’s a downer of a quasi-documentary about corner-cutting corporate types, good men who give in to pressure from bosses and people whose split-second decisions go fatally wrong. Heroes there may be on a small scale, but you leave the theater feeling somber.

We’re meant to identify with three employees on the Deepwater Horizon, a movable structure searching for oil a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) manages the rig for BP, though he fears the parent company hasn’t ensured its safety. Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) “pilots” the rig to keep it in position. Mike Williams has a job I didn’t understand, a kind of engineer’s task, and a wife at home (Kate Hudson) to worry about him. We don’t know enough about them to think of them as individuals, any more than we do the corporate chief (John Malkovich) who shoves the project forward.

The movie has three significant virtues. Director Peter Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand capture the jokey, competent way that a work crew – mostly male, somewhat profane, prepared for danger but not catastrophe – might behave in this closed society.

Cinematographer Enrique Chediak heightens tension, until the film almost inevitably falls into a chaos of swinging cranes, tottering derricks and flying glass.

And we see how such a mishap could occur. Equipment that works intermittently is allowed to degrade. Executives, confounded by a test with an ambiguous result, rely on a second test that doesn’t prove conclusive. Fatigued guys on a project 43 days overdue lose their edge. You can understand why the film depicts BP bosses as contemptible, if not legally culpable, and why they were found not guilty of manslaughter after 11 workers died.

The lesser-known documentary “The Great Invisible” digs deeper and tells the story from the viewpoints of surviving workers, oil company executives and Gulf Coast residents, who still deal with the largest oil spill in U.S. history. But “Deepwater Horizon” does a more than respectable job of dramatizing that story.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Deepwater Horizon’

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson.

Director: Peter Berg.

Length: 107 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, brief strong language).