Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon

Now in general release, Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams, an electronics tech stationed aboard the ill-fated drilling rig. The explosion and fire, which occurred off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, killed eleven Transocean hands and led to the largest oil spill in the history of the U.S.

Good golly, was that just 6-1/2 years ago? A lot has happened since then.

Historically, popular culture’s treatment of the oil industry has run the gamut from stereotype to caricature. There Will Be Blood examined a legal principle called “the rule of capture”: “I drank your milkshake!” On TV, Dallas gave us characters more patently duplicitous and unlikeable than any of the 2016 Presidential candidates. (OK, so I exaggerate.) My favorite line of all time is from Urban Cowboy, when the leggy brunette Texan tells Travolta, “My daddy is in oil … and all that that implies.”

Deepwater Horizon doesn’t go there. Watching Deepwater Horizon, you get to meet the truly decent folk of the Gulf South that it has been my pleasure to work with and live around for most of my career. It rings true, it has heart, and it cares about getting the details right.

The screenplay was largely based on an excellent article in the New York Times which appeared in December 2010. I read the article and blogged about it at the time; the movie was clearly storyboarded from the sequence of events in the article. As I watched the movie, it played out pretty much as I had imagined from reading the article.

I won’t quibble about technical details; most of the things that seem “wrong” to a petroleum engineer are intentional; they help the narrative along. Deepwater Horizon, after all, is not a documentary. On only one occasion did I lean over in the theater to tell my wife, “That would never happen.” It’s the scene where the BP exec from Houston shows up at the Port Fourchon helicopter terminal in a necktie. A necktie!

Every story needs a villian: John Malkovich plays Vidrine, the BP “company man”, one of two operator representatives on the rig. (Rigs are mostly staffed by the rig owner’s personnel and various service personnel.) Malkovich’s Cajun accent owes a lot to James Carville, but I must admit he was pretty good, for a Yankee. Seriously, most non-native actors attempting a Cajun accent end up sounding like Justin Wilson on mind-altering drugs (See Adam Sandler in The Waterboy.)

The story is told from Wahlberg’s character’s perspective. He’s a relatable everyman, and does a fine job of it, even if he did experiment with several alternate pronunciations of “Schlumberger”. Kurt Russell as Mr. Jimmy, the rig’s OIM — essentially the captain of the ship — was terrific.

The depiction of the blowout and fire in the movie is harrowing and unforgettable. I can only compare it to the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan in power and intensity.

(Not that this rates a Plot Spoiler! warning): The movie narrative places culpability for the accident clearly on Vidrine and BP. The spill, cleanup and economic settlements would ultimately cost BP $40+ billion. As a corporation, BP plead to criminal charges and paid a large fine. The individual prosecutions dragged some people through the ringer but mostly went nowhere.

In the real world, most people are just folks looking to make a way for themselves and their families. Deepwater Horizon succeeds in telling the story of regular folks who find themselves — literally in a matter of minutes — face-to-face with earth’s untamable fury. On deepwater rigs, these men and women work 21-day shifts because we – and our thirst for oil – demand it. They work long shifts in the elements out of sight of land, and we forget about them, until an accident puts them in the news.

Go see Deepwater Horizon.

[At the time, I blogged extensively about the blowout, spill and aftermath. There’s a good selection at my Greatest Hits page, where about half of the posts are BP spill-related. Along the way, I got one thing wrong about the movie.]

Update 10/7/16: We saw Deepwater Horizon a couple of weeks after seeing Sully, and it struck me that there is a common thread between the two. Both portray human reactions to unprecedented catastrophes. One of the problems with events of this nature — “Black Swan” events per Nassim Nicholas Taleb — is that the human mind is programmed to force-fit new data into a “normal” narrative. They often don’t recognize just how bad their predicament is until it’s too late.

According to Taleb, the real world does not follow this statistical conceit [of a bell-shaped so-called normal distribution of possible events], even if it makes the math easy. The real world is governed more by Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will.”), and by Hale’s Corollary to Murphy’s Law (“There is no limit to how bad things can get.”).

Both movies also portray Federal investigations into tragedies. The nature of the beast is that someone has to be to blame. The more complicated the regulatory regime, the easier the job of the accident investigator. The accident investigators write the regs. If I sound cynical, it’s because I am.

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