Review: Explosions hide reality in BP spill movie

September 30, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. 

The Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could be seen from space. The 2010 explosion of the mammoth Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. For its sins as the principal corporation involved, BP has paid out or set aside $61.6 billion, a figure the company said as recently as July was finally a reliable estimate. Even in IMAX, the huge scale of the disaster would be hard to capture. But a new Hollywood film zooms in so close it loses the big picture.

Director Peter Berg’s action blockbuster, “Deepwater Horizon,” follows the rig’s crew, 11 of whom were killed, on the day of the explosion. The story is based on reporting by the New York Times that showed how the crew’s actions prevented a much higher death toll. Berg makes them his heroes, fighting cartoonishly villainous BP executives obsessed with the bottom line. Set up this way, Berg’s film recasts the story of the catastrophe as something like a triumph.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, the real-life electrician who was the last man off the rig. Mike is a Transocean employee, like his boss Jimmy Harrell, played by Kurt Russell. Together they are portrayed as the conscience of the rig, raising safety concerns even under corporate pressure and pulling coworkers out of fireballs after those concerns are ignored.

Mike and Mr. Jimmy, as he’s known, are sent in to plug the troublesome “well from hell” and leave the oil to be extracted by a different type of rig. They arrive on board to learn that a safety test has been skipped, one of many corners cut to hustle along a project that was over budget and behind schedule.

Since the explosion and oil spill, U.S. courts have found BP guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct, leading to the huge payouts. Some responsibility has also been apportioned to BP’s partners on the rig, including Transocean and Halliburton. The film needs a less complicated villain, however, and finds it in two BP honchos on board, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine. The latter, played by John Malkovich, explains his casual relationship with rules as a billion-dollar difference in BP’s then $186 billion market cap.

In the film, Vidrine pushes the Transocean crew to make the decision that led to the explosion. In real life, it wasn’t so simple. A crucial misinterpretation of a test result may have originated with a Transocean employee who died in the explosion, federal hearings found. Vidrine and Kaluza were indicted for manslaughter, but U.S. prosecutors eventually dropped those charges.

Peter Berg’s version in fact plays into BP’s own flawed narrative, which blames mistakes made on board the Deepwater Horizon. Investigations have shown that some culpability lies with the BP team in Houston who were communicating with engineers on board and more with the company’s culture as a whole.

The film acknowledges the subpar maintenance of a rig held together by “Band Aids and bubblegum” but doesn’t explain how malfunctioning equipment was central to the disaster. Drilling in deep water involves huge technical challenges in difficult conditions. BP, the courts found, didn’t take enough care drilling a well known to be at risk of a blowout.

Lest it seem picayune to fact-check a blockbuster action movie, “Deepwater Horizon” puts itself forward as a representation of the real story. While the on-screen presence of Wahlberg ought to disabuse anyone expecting a documentary, the film opens with his real-life counterpart swearing under oath to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help him God. Footage from a federal hearing rolls with the credits.

There are a lot of explosions in the movie, and they obscure important issues like the environmental impact of the disaster. Aside from a collision with an oily pelican, the film doesn’t go there. The spill proved harder than expected to stop once it started, but a blowout was a known risk, and an unavoidable one in the search for fossil fuels in ever more challenging places.

Back on land, how drilling was and is regulated also demands scrutiny. A share of blame for BP’s disaster was attached to the Minerals Management Service, the federal watchdog which oversaw offshore drilling plans at the time. After its laxity was exposed, President Barack Obama suspended offshore drilling, abolished the MMS and created a new, more intrusive oversight structure. The film doesn’t even begin to explore the failures of officialdom.

Berg is best known for military thrillers like “Lone Survivor” and “The Kingdom.” His new drama shares with them a focus on heroic working-class men – the women are mostly occupied with fearful, unfocused staring – who save lives and do the hard things necessary to keep America safe and prosperous. Crew members certainly took courageous decisions on board the rig, and that provides a human core for the story. But by pulling the characters out of their economic, environmental and even political contexts, “Deepwater Horizon” wastes the opportunity to help make the next disaster less likely.

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