Deepwater Horizon, the dramatic thriller based on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill catastrophe, could have gone wrong in a hundred different ways. By reducing events to a disaster movie templateThe Towering Inferno on waterthe filmmakers take a conspicuous risk.

But in the hands of director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), the movie never feels exploitative. In fact, the narrow focus serves the film well. This is a story about the human drama of rig workers who survived the worst oil disaster in U.S. historyand those who didn’t.

It helps tremendously that Berg doesn’t dumb things down. The story’s first half is packed with flat-out fascinating numbers and details, presented both visually and through rat-a-tat dialogue. We learn that the thirty-story-tall rignot a fixed structure but a shipoperated a drill pipe that went down 5,000 feet to the sea floor, then another 13,000 feet to oil. For comparison, consider that the world’s tallest building is around 2,700 feet tall. Rig workers called it “the well from hell.”

These setup details provide critical context and scale for the story. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell lead the cast as our competent and safety-minded rig workers, persuaded to cut corners by BP oil executive John Malkovich, chewing scenery as usual. “There’s the big picture, and then there’s the little picture, like you,” he purrs.

Then things go to hell. The oil well blowout is utterly terrifying, a sustained crescendo of explosions and structural collapse that unfolds over the entire second half of the movie. CGI effects are deployed throughout, but they never feel phony. By building key parts of the rig to scale, the filmmakers successfully convey the power and weight of this ultimate heavy metal cataclysm.

Visceral and ruthlessly paced, the final disaster sequences are literally stunning; I walked out of the theater in a kind of daze. It was only later that the dissatisfaction crept in. For all the technical details it provides, Deepwater Horizon leaves a core question unanswered. According to the film, the lethal blowout was triggered by a single dubious decision. It was a bad call, certainly, but the kind that must be made all the time in this industry. What happened to the rig’s extensive fail-safe systems?

You won’t get the answers in the movie, but you will find them in the document the film is based ona 2010 New York Times investigative report titled “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours.” It’s easy to track down online and I highly recommend doing so. Ideally, movies don’t require supporting documentation, but this one does.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The Well from Hell”