For Deepwater Horizon “it’s the explosion that’s the star in this very American of movies” says Dara Higgins

On the 20th of April, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling rig, exploded and sank, causing the largest oilspill in history and killing 11 people. This is the story of those people. Or so we’re told. But it isn’t really.

Marky Mark plays Mike Williams, who worked on board the rig, trouble shooting technical problems, turning stuff off and on again. He lives the dream with his beautiful family and his effortless likeability. He kisses his wife goodbye and heads, via helicopter, out into the Gulf Of Mexico, to his home for the next three weeks. Or so he thinks.

From the beginning of his working day there’s problems. Phones, wi-fi, air-con. All is not well aboard this massive rig. The first hour of the film involves men with goatees talking in impenetrable jargon and euphemisms. Running an oil rig is like granddaddy flossing his teeth or stirring a gumbo or something. John Malkovich’s impressively slimy Donald Vidrine is more concerned with the current drilling job being 43 days over schedule and how he wants things moved on. Rig boss Mister Jimmy (Kurt Russell’s moustache) won’t have it. Tests need to be done. But tests take time, and time is money. And Vidrine is a money man; it’s all that matters to him, as Mike handily points out to us. In case we missed it. To this end he puts the pressure on the crew to start the drilling, despite the cautions of the engineers. With disastrous consequences.

The second reel is relentless. Once the accident occurs, things move on quickly. Crude oil gushes from the well, catches fire and explodes, spinning our heroes hither and tither. Dazed, they emerge, in search of each other and safety. Amid the booming, blazing and noise tiny acts of ordinary heroism are enacted out, all shot in the shaky veritie style. Think Paul Greengrass’s United 93 when we cut from the explosions to the control room of the coast guard, where more jargon is barked and rescues planned.

Deepwater Horizon seems to want to recreate this fairly recent event in the style of The Towering Inferno meets The Poseidon Adventure, but without either’s sense of fun, because the actual, real events depicted within are presumably still real and recent to some people. As such, the characters are too good, too blue collar. Roughnecks, who know their jobs, who’ll go in search of each other, who leave no man behind. All the cast are based on real people, but seem to lack real people nuance (with the notable exception of Gina Rodriguez as Andrea.) It’s a hagiography to working stiff. Honest Joes, cast into a hell not of their own making. At one point a man stands watching the American Flag ruffle amid the pandemonium, and makes the decision to sacrifice his life to save those of his colleagues. It’s on the nose like a pimple. Later on, the survivors huddle and recite the Lord’s Prayer. American life continues, undaunted.

The finger of blame, it’s very clear, is pointed at BP and Vidrine, who slinks away like Ismay on a lifeboat. Much is made of BP’s (British Petroleum, by the way, a fact alluded to by Malkovich when he complains about head office in London) voracity, their wealth, their entitlement. What they want, they will get, regardless of what the working man may think.

Hollywood, meanwhile, has no problem commodifying the experience of the ordinary citizen to create 2 hours of entertainment, beautifying the protagonists and reducing their deaths to popcorn fodder. Packaged and filmed as an action packed, overloud, pyrotechnic blockbuster, the film ultimately loses sympathy with the victims of the disaster. Their story has merely fulfilled a function. Here it’s the explosion that’s the star in this very American of movies.