Peter Berg, director of pictures like 2013’s tough-as-a-callus military drama Lone Survivor, isn’t known for his subtlety. But then, in telling the story of the Deepwater Horizon—the oil-drilling rig that exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history—subtlety is the last thing you want. The picture is effective and harrowing, not least because it features faces we’ve come to trust–like Mark Wahlberg, as chief electronics technician Mike Williams, and Kurt Russell, as the rig’s crew chief, Jimmy Harrell, or “Mr. Jimmy,” as the crew calls him–contorted in terror and coated with what looks like an unholy blend of oil, mud and soot, often streaked with blood.
Berg succeeds in balancing Deepwater Horizon’s unnervingly believable special effects with the human element: when the rig first erupts in flames, it’s as if some grim beast were gnashing at it with fiery teeth. Yet we never lose sight of the fact that men’s lives are at stake, particularly in an early sequence when workers in a glass-windowed chamber scramble as the oil first leaks, then bursts, into the rig’s interior—hey become trapped in a vitrine of terror. The picture is clear in stating that all these men, people who have taken jobs most of us would never wish to do, were victims not just of human error but also of greed and hubris. Enter John Malkovich in a classic, mustache-twirling turn as Donald Vidrine, the BP executive who urged the crew to move forward even after diagnostic tests indicated it was unsafe to do so. Malkovich sure isn’t subtle, either, but that’s the point: his job is to get your blood boiling, and boy, he’s good at it.
This appears in the October 10, 2016 issue of TIME.
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