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Truth and Fiction on the Horizon

The worst offshore oil disaster in U.S. history is getting the Hollywood treatment in ”Deepwater Horizon,” out today.

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"Deepwater Horizon," starring Mark Wahlberg, tells the story of the worst oil spill in American history.
Lionsgate

Six and a half years ago, one of the most advanced offshore oil drilling rigs ever built exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 of its 126 crew members. The rig burned and sank, snapping off the mile-long drill pipe between the rig and the sea floor, and unleashing a flow of oil that would continue for 87 days and release almost 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf. The accident, on April 20, 2010, touched off years-long criminal and civil litigation (the last major case was resolved earlier this year) and has cost the company responsible, BP, tens of billions of dollars in fines, cleanup costs and legal expenses. Scientists continue to study the long-term environmental impacts, which may not be fully understood for years to come.

In the meantime, the worst offshore oil disaster in U.S. history is getting the Hollywood treatment. Deepwater Horizon, the Peter Berg film that arrives in theaters this week, combines the bravado of John Wayne’s Hellfighters with the against-all-odds bombast of the original Die Hard, minus the terrorists and gunfire.  

It features grime-covered superstars dodging huge explosions, an excruciating shard-of-glass-from-the-foot extraction, and bumbling managers who must be saved by their street-smart (or rig-smart) grunts. And like with Bruce Willis in Die Hard, we know that Mark Wahlberg will survive the disaster, in this case because Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, the rig’s real-life former electronics technician.

The challenge in bringing Deepwater Horizon to the big screen is that the story it’s based on is complex and is still a very fresh wound for many. It’s a tough needle to thread for Berg, who directed the film, and Wahlberg, who was the executive producer (and who both worked together on the film Lone Survivor, based on the book by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell). Berg and Wahlberg are clearly aiming for a blockbuster, yet they don’t want to exploit for sheer entertainment the 11 men who died in the explosion.

They navigate these potential pitfalls deftly. The complexities of offshore drilling are handled mostly through dialogue, powerful subsea visuals, and the occasional brief onscreen explanation, like in one early scene when well pressure and the use of drilling mud to hold back the flow of oil is demonstrated with a Coke can, a straw, and honey as part of a child’s school science project. While drilling engineers might quibble with some of the technical representations, they are more than adequate to move the story along for a general audience.

There’s also the issue of the real story lacking a true main character, but this is addressed with true Hollywood screenwriting flair. Rather than tell multiple survivor stories, it weaves them all into one, turning Williams into an amalgamation of various real-life people—and consequently a stand-in for on-rig heroics. At times, movie Mike portrays actions taken by real Mike’s colleagues, like Chad Murray, the chief electrician, who isn’t portrayed in the film but who, in the real disaster, returned twice into the bowels of the rig to save injured colleagues.

The film also makes Williams a trusted counsel for Jimmy Harrell, the rig’s manager. Williams follows Harrell, played by Kurt Russell, into meetings he never attended and raises concerns that go well beyond his expertise as an electronics technician.

Much of Williams’ story holds to the truth—his escape from his shop after the initial blast, his efforts to restart a backup generator and his dramatic leap from the deck of the burning rig. But that leap, and the events leading to it, are pure Hollywood. Movie Mike is alone on the burning platform with his 23-year-old co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriquez), who, overcome by fear, is afraid to jump. Williams valiantly saves her by throwing her from the rig, then jumps himself.

Six years ago, the real Williams told 60 Mintues’ Scott Pelley that he jumped first and left Fleytas behind. Fleytas later told U.S. Coast Guard investigators she was last in the life raft and fell out as it descended. Murray, who was in that same raft, told me in 2011 that Fleytas was in it.

In reality, survival isn’t always as pretty or as cleanly heroic as Hollywood would like.

Deepwater Horizon, though, succeeds by keeping its focus on the rig workers, who are shown as knowledge and noble. The managers, however, are another story. A few weeks ago, I interviewed one of the two BP rig supervisors, Bob Kaluza, who told his version of the accident publicly for the first time. Kaluza, who said he had not been contacted by the producers, planned to watch the film “to see what Hollywood can get away with.”

What it gets away with is blaming him and fellow BP supervisor Don Vidrine for everything that went wrong. Kaluza, who was asleep at time of the accident, is a minor character, played by Brad Leland, who looks more like the real-life Vidrine and gives Kaluza a thick southern accent even though Kaluza is from North Dakota.

The onscreen Vidrine is played by John Malkovich, who literally sinks his teeth into the role. Malkovich’s awkward, hammy Cajun accent apparently can’t be delivered without a generous showing of his choppers. He looks like a horse with a wad of cotton stuck under his gums.

The toothy, leering Vidrine is the movie’s villain, even getting doused with drilling mud as the accident begins in a flagrant bid for audience satisfaction. In reality, Vidrine was in his office when the accident began, not on the drilling floor.

Malkovich’s cartoonish portrayal, accompanied by those of visiting BP executives—Joe Chrest as David Sims and James DuMont as Patrick O’Bryan—actually manage to overstate BP’s cost-cutting culture and its willingness to put profit ahead of safety. In fact, the causes of the disaster were much subtler, and more prolonged, than what the movie shows.

Even as it lays blame at BP’s feet, the film buys into the legal argument that BP’s lowest-level employees, Vidrine and Kaluza, should bear full responsibility. Vidrine alone makes all the decisions, and all of them are bad. At one point, he and Harrell are arguing about pressure test results and Malkovich says, “if there’s no flow, we’re good to go.” That’s remarkably close to a comment that David Gerger, Kaluza’s attorney, used in the closing arguments of his criminal trial: “If the well didn’t flow, it wasn’t going to blow.”

Deepwater Horizon, of course, is a feature film, not an examination of the accident’s root causes. It is “based on true events,” Hollywood’s euphemism for making things up. Most of the made-up stuff in Deepwater Horizon is forgivable in large part because Berg and Wahlberg never lose sight of the most salient point: the deaths, and the need for heroics, never should have happened.

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  • Gil

    “yet they don’t want to exploit for sheer entertainment the 11 men who died in the explosion.” Oh but this is exactly what they set out to do, because nobody wants to know the truth so why not whitewash it Hollywood style.

  • Mike Jones

    No mention of the four who the USCG plucked out and took to the shore or the ten that were flown to a nearby rig and stabilized by the medical crew, only to be shipped on to the Burn/Trauma center later in the morning. What about the rest who were kept on the boat for couple of days after the incident?? No, afraid the movie was Hollywooded too much, all for the almighty dollar.