8 out of 10
Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams
Directed by Peter Berg
Deepwater Horizon Review:
Deepwater Horizon not only realistically and respectfully depicts the 2010 disaster, but it is a film that has the power to make audiences think and potentially change safety in industry for the better.
Deepwater Horizon is based on the real-life disaster that took place in 2010.
Mike Williams is a hard working family man who makes his living working on the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. While he loves his job and is good at it, there are frustrations. The Transocean rig has a long list of maintenance issues, he has to be away from his family for 21 days straight, and the well they are drilling has been having one problem after another.
Finding themselves over 40 days behind schedule, engineers from BP have been pushing them to cut corners and accelerate the schedule. Despite their pressures, Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell is uneasy about bypassing established procedures and pushes back. However, the BP representatives continue to push to the point that Harrell reluctantly complies.
What none of them realize is that the sensors and data they have been looking at have been indicating an unprecedented chain of failures. The end result of those failures will be an incident that causes the biggest oil spill in history, the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon, and Mike Williams and his fellow crew fighting for their lives.
Deepwater Horizon is rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.
Whenever I walk into a movie, I try to go in with an open mind. I want to give every movie a fair shot to entertain me or move me. And if I have a particular bias for or against a film, I try and be up front about it in my reviews. So in reviewing Deepwater Horizon, I have to admit that I have a particular bias – I work in the oil industry (Surprise! Most movie critics don’t review full time for a living. Those bribery checks from the studios don’t cover all the bills). Not only do I work in the oil industry, I work for a major oil company (not BP) in the Gulf of Mexico designing deepwater oil platforms. Me reviewing Deepwater Horizon is like a pilot reviewing Sully, an astronaut reviewing Gravity, or a firefighter reviewing Backdraft. This is my realm and I’ve been working in it almost 19 years. So I was curious to see how Hollywood would depict my main profession. After all, they haven’t generally been kind to the industry in the past. People in the oil industry are typically portrayed as villains that will do anything for a dime and are willing to destroy the environment without remorse. Could a Hollywood film depict this tragic incident even-handedly? Could they show this deepwater world realistically? Could they portray the men and women who work offshore as human beings and not as caricatures? And what, ultimately, would the message of the film be? I was eager to find out.
First off, I was shocked at how perfectly Peter Berg and his crew portrayed this world. As Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell, and Andrea Fleytas get on the helicopters and fly offshore, I suddenly started having flashbacks to the numerous times I’ve gone offshore myself. As they fly over the Louisiana swamps and out over the waters of the Gulf, it felt just like my own experiences (Except I was shoved against the door of the helicopter in my seat next to a 400 lb drilling rig worker). As they landed at the rig, it looked just like the ones I had seen. As the crew arrived, everything was just so familiar. From the outfits to the safety equipment to the layout of the rig, it was spot on. This is about as close as you can get to touring an oil rig without going on one. So my hard hat is off to Berg for their fine attention to detail and for getting all that to look so right.
I was also quite pleased with the portrayals of every character in the film. They’re all human no matter if you see them as the hero or the villain in the story. We see a bit of Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams with his wife and daughter. They’re likable and entirely relatable. And when Mike goes offshore, we see the humor and comradery that he has with everyone. In the real world I see laughing, joking, and teasing among workers across the industry no matter where I go, and this film perfectly captures that. I’ve also known the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) at one of the deepest oil platforms in the world. Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Deepwater Horizon OIM Jimmy Harrell feels like he’s doing an impression of the guy I knew. Russell perfectly captured the guy’s commanding personality, disdain for engineers (like me!), and deep care for his crew. It was eerie to see the similarities. And while the BP representatives are definitely portrayed as the villains of the film, they, too, are shown to be likable. They aren’t moustache-twirling villains that want to club baby seals. They laugh and joke with each other and seem to genuinely want to do a good job. And even though John Malkovich as Donald Vidrine pushes around the Transocean crew, he has seemingly sound logic and scientific thought behind his ultimately bad decision. Based on the data he had at the time, it wasn’t a glaringly-wrong call that he made. I think Berg’s approach of making these characters relatable makes the audience care about them a lot more when disaster strikes. And the fact that the BP guys are even-handedly portrayed makes you more likely to think, “What would I have done in that situation?” rather than, “That guy is an idiot. I’d never do that.”
I was also impressed with how Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand explained rather complex engineering issues in an easy to understand way to audiences. In an opening scene, Mike’s daughter, proudly rehearsing a class presentation about her father, explains how oil wells are drilled and plugged with mud. This is done in a simple and elegant way that sets you up for everything that happens later in the story. In another scene, BP’s Donald Vidrine goes to a dry erase board and explains, in a condescending way to the crew, the “bladder effect” and why he thought they were seeing the readings that they were and why, ultimately, he made the bad call that he did. It effectively conveys what went wrong but also shows why everyone reluctantly went along with it – it seemed valid at the time. In short, these scenes show masterful ways of using characters to deliver exposition in a way that not only informs the audience but helps further flesh out the characters delivering it.
After effectively making us care about the characters and fully understanding the impending disaster, we see the incident take place. It is quite spectacular. From the initial blowout to the ultimate explosion, you are holding your breath. I don’t know how much of it was CG and how much of it was real, but it was all quite realistic looking. I don’t think I’ve seen fire stunts this impressive since Kurt Russell’s Backdraft. So if your main interest is seeing the stunts and disaster, this film will deliver. But I must admit that though I am an action fan, I felt guilty about watching Deepwater Horizon. This incident hit close to home, had a terrible impact on the environment, and killed 11 people that could have just as easily been me. So seeing people laughing and munching popcorn while Hollywood made a profit off of this disaster seemed inappropriate and disrespectful at first. But as I watched the movie, I felt like the deaths of the men were handled respectfully and I felt like the story had an important message for everyone that needed to be told.
While I went into this movie expecting the message of Deepwater Horizon to be an indictment against the oil industry for raping the environment, that wasn’t necessarily it. The real message was the consequence of cutting corners. When people sacrifice technical expertise and careful thought for the sake of money and time, the consequences can be disastrous. And that’s not just a lesson for the oil industry. It’s a lesson for every engineering discipline. But it goes beyond that. It applies to the doctor that rushes things and misinterprets test results. It applies to the cop that doesn’t properly file evidence and ruins a case. It applies to the journalist that doesn’t fact check their story. It applies to the driver who decides to run a red light so they won’t be late. So that’s the true value of Deepwater Horizon. If it gets someone to stop and think about the potential consequences of their actions, then that’s something important. For me, personally, it’s the realization that I make critical decisions every day. A good decision could save lives and protect the environment, yet I’d never know it. A bad decision could kill people, destroy the environment, cost billions of dollars, and end up having me portrayed by John Malkovich as a bad guy on the big screen. Nobody wants that.
What Didn’t Work:
While I enjoyed Deepwater Horizon, I do recognize that there are issues with it. First off, disaster movies are incredibly hard to write and break new ground on. This film, for all of its realism, does follow familiar disaster movie tropes. The story frequently cuts back to Kate Hudson as Felicia Williams, who, stereotypically, cries and waits by the phone for news on her husband. The BP executives are shown stumbling around stupidly when the full reality of their mistake strikes. And, of course, our hero saves the day. Now that may have been exactly how it played out in real life, but on the surface it just feels like a standard disaster movie plot. It’s an easy thing to take aim at and dislike if you don’t have another level of interest like I did.
You can’t have a Deepwater Horizon movie without addressing the environmental impact. However, Berg did choose an unusual way to do that. After the blowout occurs, a pelican, covered in mud from the blowout, crashes into the bridge of a nearby ship and smashes into windows until it dies on the deck. I don’t know if it really happened or not, but it felt like a not-so-subtle metaphor for how nature is impacted by the hubris of man. And earlier in the film, a bird smashes into the helicopter taking our heroes to the rig. Again, a metaphor for how man destroys nature. Both instances felt forced, but for all I know both may have actually occurred.
As far as a cautionary tale, Deepwater Horizon is worth sharing with others and watching more than once. But as far as a film for entertainment goes, I’m not sure I’d watch this more than once. It’s good, but not a classic.
The Bottom Line:
Deepwater Horizon is worth checking out on the big screen whether you work in a high risk industry or not. In my office at the oil company I work at, there’s already talk of taking every employee to a screening of it, then having a discussion about safety, the power of every employee at every level to stop work if they see something unsafe, technical expertise, and how we would react in the event of an emergency. It’s rare to see a movie create real change in the real world, but I think Deepwater Horizon has the potential to do that not just in the oil industry, but in industry in general.