Deepwater Horizon – Review

Cert.: 12A

Length: 107 mins

Writers: Matthew Carnaham, Matthew Sand, David Rohde, Stephanie Saul

Dir.: Peter Berg

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich

I was all set to slate this movie. I went into it knowing nothing about the film other than it had Marky Mark on an oil rig. I’d written it off as a by-the-numbers disaster movie, filled with clichés and daft action set pieces. I was already writing jokes in my head – stuff about it being a macho-man movie with big strong men covered in oil, and Wahlberg as a blue-collar Average Joe who happened to be an ex-Navy Seal in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, it’s directed by the guy who did the Battleships movie for God’s sake – what else was I going think?

I was very, very wrong.

If you were even vaguely aware of global events back in 2010, you can probably remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – widely considered to be the worst environmental disaster in US history. For 87 days just under 5 million barrels of oil gushed from a sea-floor well, devastating the Louisiana shoreline and local wildlife.

Based on a New York Times article, Deepwater Horizon deals with the destruction and subsequent sinking of the eponymous oil rig that was tasked with drilling the initial well and the myriad of issues that led to its failure. To cut an extremely long story short, BP’s rush to complete the well led to cutting several corners that ultimately resulted in the rig exploding, killing 11 crew members. I can’t summarise the movie and do it justice – suffice it to say that it is was on the most harrowing films I have seen in recent years. To give you an idea, here’s a quote from the original article:

“Crew members were cut down by shrapnel, hurled across rooms and buried under smoking wreckage. Some were swallowed by fireballs that raced through the oil rig’s shattered interior. Dazed and battered survivors, half-naked and dripping in highly combustible gas, crawled inch by inch in pitch darkness, willing themselves to the lifeboat deck.”

It’s a difficult article to get through, and the film is no different. But it’s an important movie to watch – not least because this element of the catastrophe is so rarely covered. You should go and see it.

All that being said, the film is not without its problems – chief among which being its depictions of certain characters. A cursory glance at news stories surrounding the Deepwater Horizon explosion show that the circumstances that led to the incident are far from clear cut, and even the aforementioned New York Times article appears reluctant to say for certain who is to blame for the disaster – seemingly because nearly everyone involved was  at fault. However, the movie is very quick to lay blame solely at BP’s door with its near comical portrayal of the evil company executives who were present on the rig at the time of the explosion. While I – and, more importantly, the US Department of Justice – agree that BP were ultimately responsible, the reality is infinitely more complex and cluster-fucky than the film would lead you to believe.

It’s beyond doubt that BP had created a working environment that was not conducive to safely completing the well, with one judge going so far as to say that the company was “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.” However, one investigation into the accident found that the other companies – namely Transocean, the owners of Deepwater Horizon; and Halliburton, who were responsible for the ‘cement job’ on the well were at least partly to blame. In fact, according to the very article the movie is based on, Transocean’s systems and procedures were as much to blame for the accident as anything else. This is a very different narrative to the one we are presented with in the movie – to the point where several scenes completely misrepresent what is known to have happened.

The film goes as far to tell the audience that the two BP execs who were present at the time were indicted for manslaughter but later had the charges dropped. It doesn’t mention that individuals being charged for company misdeeds is virtually unheard of. Or the fact that BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter for every worker killed during the accident. It appears that the writers were unconcerned with telling the whole story – as long as their film got its ‘is there no justice?!’ kicker.

I’m really not trying to defend BP here. What they did was awful and they represent everything I hate about corporations and big business in general. But to depict the execs – and by extension, the whole company – as maniacal, moustache-twirling villains is just… lazy. There is the feeling that the execs were arbitrarily assigned the bad-guy roles just so the movie could have antagonists for its protagonists – it feels more like a plot device that a faithful depiction of events, and it undermines the whole story.

Ultimately, the film suffers from the same thing that most ‘based on true events’ flicks do: it focuses on telling a story over showing the audience what actually happened. It excels at depicting the extent of the very real human tragedy surrounding the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but it’s clear from the outset that it has an agenda. Whether the film-maker had an axe to grind or not remains to be seen, but in attempting to tell a compelling tale, the film worryingly omits inconvenient truths and at times flat out lies about what actually happened… and I’m not sure I’m okay with that.

It’s one thing to dramatize a real-life event. It’s quite another to cherry-pick facts to suit a story that you want to tell. I highly recommend that you go and see Deepwater Horizon – just be aware that the true story is infinitely more complicated than it seems.

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