Posted on behalf of Rich Monastersky
Nobody loves disasters more than movie producers. If threats in real life matched their frequency on screen, we should be in a constant state of panic over the risks of alien invasions, zombie viruses and asteroid impacts. Given the film industry’s appetite for catastrophes, it is no surprise that it has finally focused on the greatest environmental disaster in US history: the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began with explosions that killed 11 people and sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
Peter Berg’s film, Deepwater Horizon, is filled with Hollywood heavyweights. Mark Wahlberg plays an everyman electrician who finds his inner hero during the disaster. Kurt Russell portrays the grizzled rig chief who steps up while everything is collapsing, and John Malkovich is the company man chasing profit at the expense of prudence. But the real star is the rig itself. Berg provides a rare look at life on board one of the most sophisticated drilling platforms on the planet. For that reason alone, the film is worth watching, despite the unnecessary liberties it takes with several key facts.
Deepwater Horizon was a US$560-million marvel of engineering, with a gleaming steel deck bigger than a football field perched on four immense floating legs. In 2009, the vessel had distinguished itself by drilling the deepest oil well to date. Owned by the company Transocean, Deepwater Horizon was leased to BP at the time of the disaster and was finishing drilling operations on the Macondo oil well, which reached 18,360 feet (5,596 metres) below sea level.
The movie’s producers spared no expense on their star. Production designer Chris Seagers and his crew of 85 welders worked for eight months to build an 85% scale replica of the Deepwater Horizon, which helped to drive the cost of the movie to an estimated value well over $100 million.
To most of the public, the name Deepwater Horizon brings to mind the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf over 87 days after the catastrophic blowout. For the filmmakers, the spill is literally an afterthought — a few words that scroll on screen at the movie’s end. The drama concentrates instead on the first few hours of the disaster, when the crew was racing to finish its work on the long-delayed oil well.
Berg’s movie brings to life an industry that touches everybody but is seen by few. Oil and gas operations on land and offshore bore the holes that provide more than half the energy used across the globe. And yet the industry is overlooked, even shunned, in a society where most of us prefer not to dwell too much on the potentially disturbing origins of our gasoline, steak and smartphones.
Well from hell
Deepwater Horizon puts faces on the drillers, electricians, crane operators, toolpushers and mud engineers who were among the 126 people on board at the time of the explosion. That day began tensely: the crew was behind schedule in finishing up operations on the “well from hell”. Deepwater Horizon’s assigned task was to drill the hole and then seal the walls of the Macondo well with steel casing and concrete. On 20 April, the crew had finished pumping concrete to the bottom of the hole and was testing the seal job. After that, Deepwater Horizon would depart and a smaller production rig would move in to extract the oil and gas.
To the credit of Berg and the screenwriters, the movie accurately portrays many details of the critical testing phase, during which the first signs of problems arise. But in the interest of creating an engaging narrative, the filmmakers turn these pivotal scenes into a cartoonish contest of good versus evil. BP employees — particularly Malkovich’s character, Donald Vidrine — come across as primarily responsible for the disaster, while the Transocean crew members are the heroes more focused on safety.*
That stark contrast in the way the movie treats BP and Transocean does not match the conclusions of several investigative panels, which found that representatives of both companies on the rig failed to heed important warning signs that immense pressure was building up in the well. The report to President Obama from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling found plenty of blame to go around, including government regulations and the company Halliburton, which had previously identified problems in the type of cement slurry it used in the Macondo well on the morning of the blowout.
The movie also neglects to mention that Transocean did not tell the Deepwater Horizon crew about a similar pressure problem that had almost turned disastrous at one of its wells in the North Sea in late 2009 — a point raised by the National Commission in its report. And Transocean did not identify problems with a crucial safety device, called a blowout preventer, according to an investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board, which issued its report this year. The blowout preventer is a 400-tonne apparatus that sits on the seafloor and is designed to seal the well if the pressure inside rises to uncontrollable levels. But the crew on Deepwater Horizon did not act quickly enough when evidence of trouble first appeared and the blowout preventer failed in the crucial moment.
In the end, though, blame is not central to the movie. It is more concerned with the heroic actions of many members of the crew, including some of those who perished, which saved most of the lives on the Deepwater Horizon. Although the film alters some facts here, too, it captures the central truth that some ordinary people stepped forward in the darkest hour and committed acts of extreme bravery.
*The US government indicted Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, another BP employee on the rig at the time of the explosion, on charges of involuntary manslaughter but later dropped the charges. Vidrine pleaded guilty last December to a misdemeanor pollution charge and was sentenced to 10 months of probation, a $50,000 fine and community service. Kaluza was charged with the same offence but took the case to trial and won in February.
Rich Monastersky is news features editor at Nature, based in Washington DC. He tweets at @RichMonastersky.
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