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Deepwater Horizon movie review: blood for oil

Deepwater Horizon green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Immensely intense and suspenseful. Disaster filmmaking at its most gripping, yet there is nothing in the least bit exploitive or sensationalized about it.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Wait, what? “Based on a true story of real life heroes”? Wasn’t the Deepwater Horizon that total cluster-you-know-what of incompetence and corporate greed that killed 11 people and spilled an ungodly amount of oil all over the Gulf of Mexico, oil that is still killing seabirds and fish and cute baby dolphins to this day, six years later? Yes, it is. But this is not that story, at least not anymore than it can make some BP executives look wolfish and blundering (which they well deserve). This movie doesn’t even get into the oil spill itself — which went on for months and is still the biggest ever anywhere — or the cleanup and longterm impact of what turned out to be the worst US environmental disaster to date. Nope, this is just about the explosion on that offshore oil-drilling rig, in April 2010, and the immediate aftermath for those onboard, most of whom were just regular grunts who weren’t to blame for the disaster.

This is an action disaster movie that’s as much about science and engineering as it is about survival… and that’s incredibly cool.

Ah, but were they heroes, or just poor schmoes unlucky enough to get caught up in catastrophe?tweet Well, at least some of what we witness Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg: Daddy’s Home, Ted 2), do here in the hellscape that the rig became definitely qualifies as heroism of the “risking your life to save others” variety. And since director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) seems to have gone to great lengths to stick to the truth of the events — up to having survivors on-set as consultants — I’m gonna give the movie the benefit of the doubt and presume that the actions of other characters here that are selflessly heroic also really happened. (The very long December 2010 New York Times article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul that this is based on is available online, as is the 60 Minutes interview with the real Williams from May 16, 2010, less than a month after the events he lived through.)

Yes, the navigator of Deepwater Horizon is a girl (Gina Rodriguez), but she, like, knows how to fix cars and stuff, so it’s cool.

Yes, the navigator of Deepwater Horizon is a girl (Gina Rodriguez), but she, like, knows how to fix cars and stuff, so it’s cool.tweet

Like Berg’s previous film, Lone Survivor — about a calamitous real-life military mission in Afghanistan — Deepwater Horizon is immensely intense and suspenseful even when you already know the general outcometweet. This is disaster filmmaking at its most gripping, and yet (also like Lone Survivor) there is nothing in the least bit exploitive or sensationalized about it. Horizon is exhausting — I was actually aching after my screening from being so tensed up during it — partly because it feels real, not exaggerated. Even though the vessel Deepwater Horizon has something of a science-fiction feel to it! This huge monster of a machine is a boat: it floats. You kinda can’t help but gawp at the awesomeness of it, and at what it does. The script — by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, State of Play) and Matthew Sand — does an amazing job of explaining the deeply complex and technical work of a floating offshore oil prospecting and drilling rig in a cute, clever way: via Williams’ grade-school daughter and her explainer school report on her dad’s job. Using just a can of Coke and a straw, she helps us understand how the Horizon works… and how it can fail. Even if you’re horrified at the recklessness that led to the disaster (not to mention the recklessness of squeezing every last drop of oil out of the Earth in our era of global warming), it’s still amazing to consider. This is an action disaster movie that’s as much about science and engineering as it is about survival — and that’s incredibly cool — but Berg doesn’t fetishize that aspect of it, either.

No, what we see here is downright horrifying, and nothing else. The delicate machine that is the Horizon has not been well maintained: if there’s any humor in this movie at all, it is of the grim kind, as Williams chews out a BP exec (a hissworthy John Malkovich: Zoolander 2, Penguins of Madagascar) for how the company refuses to make time and money available for desperately needed maintenance. And it’s all in Wahlberg’s delightful fast-talking style, until he slows down for the conclusion: “money-hungry sons-a-bitches.” BP does not come off well here, as it shouldn’t.tweet (It would have been nice for notorious Halliburton, also a contractor on the Horizon, to have gotten a smack, but I don’t recall them being mentioned at all. Transocean, the company that owned and operated the rig and leased it to BP, probably doesn’t get as much of a smack as it should: Kurt Russell’s [The Hateful Eight, Furious 7)] Transocean exec is pretty sympathetic.)

Perhaps someday, in a hotter future, the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be seen as a powerful metaphor for humanity’s arrogance.

So, the Horizon is already overbudget and overschedule on its current mission, so there’s a rush to cap off the well so it can move on. The capping is done poorly, there are leaks of methane from the well, and **BOOM**!

It’s somewhat more complicated than that — though, again, the movie makes the cascade of failures that happen relatively easy to digest. And what comes after that is kinda like Titanic except with mud and fire instead of cold and ice, and with no romance (thank goodness no one felt a need to shove one in). Deepwater Horizon should be proud to be in its company: Titanic is an amazing film about (among other things) corporate greed and how it’s the little people who pay when big companies put profit about all else. (Malkovich’s BP exec gets onto a lifeboat while others are still onboard the Horizon, just like that White Star weasel in Titanic.) It’s too soon to say — that well might still be leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP is still in business — but perhaps someday, in a hotter future, the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be seen as a powerful metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in the same way that the sinking of the Titanic is. If so, Peter Berg may have created a film that will literally be for the ages.

green light 4 stars

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Deepwater Horizon (2016) | directed by Peter Berg
US/Can release: Sep 30 2016
UK/Ire release: Sep 29 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate threat, occasional gory moments, infrequent strong language)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I dunno, the fact that they went into production less than 5 years after the event (and that the consequences – both financial and environmental – of the even are still being dealt with today) seems pretty exploitative to me.

  • LaSargenta

    I am tired and at home rubbing dried thyme off the stems, so I really don’t feel like explaining drilling technology, but, in a nutshell, the “little guys” have some autonomy in this environment and have plenty of culpability wrt safe operation of a rig.

    I don’t care about the heroism. They all were responsible.

    Reminder…geotechnical engineer here. Mining, drilling, oil fields technology, grouting, cement, cement-bentonite, and superfine silica grout and many other compounds are all potentially part of my workday.

    I am furious there is a movie about this making a hero out of anyone on that rig.

  • Do you have any particular knowledge about this disaster and how it came about and who could have stopped it? Or are you speaking generally?

    It sounds like you won’t see the movie, but if you do, I’d be very curious to hear what you think about it. As I said in the review, I don’t think it’s unrealistic in how it depicts people reacting to a life-or-death situation.

    I wonder if this was like the current Wells Fargo fiasco, in which corporate created an environment in which the low-level on-the-ground employees had no choice but to do things that were unethical or downright criminal in order to keep their jobs. Not everybody can walk away from their work, so they go along and hope it all turns out for the best in the end. In fact, there’s a scene in DWH in which Wahlberg’s character tells Malkovich’s BP exec that the company is operating as if “hope is a tactic,” that is, letting things slide in the hopes that everything works out okay. And the whole thing is like a house of cards, in which everyone (execs and grunts) just keep knocking along with fingers crossed, and no single moment seems like the final straw… until catastrophe strikes and then it’s obviously too late. Like a boiling-frog scenario…

  • I would have said the same thing too before the movie, but it didn’t feel that way to me.

  • Danielm80

    It sounds like you won’t see the movie, but if you do, I’d be very curious to hear what you think about it.

    I would, too.

  • LaSargenta

    This is so fucking depressing. Start here…watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrOYoE-Hrp4
    No, it is not me narrating it.

  • LaSargenta

    Okay, so that’s about the cleanup. The videos or power point presentations that I can point to about grouting are not nearly as entertaining.

    I most definitely do not have first-hand knowledge of the deep water rig.

    But, from my knowledge of drilling, geology and grouting, I can absolutely guarantee that this could have been avoided. From what I know of the Gulf Coast sea floor geology, I also can absolutely guarantee this could have been avoided. There could have been so much less risk. But, then BP wouldn’t have made so much money.

    I would only watch this if it had been pirated. I actively DO NOT want anyone involved with this production to make ANY money off it. Fuck ’em all.

  • LaSargenta

    The house of cards and the boiling frog are us, the society that needs to run on oil. We are all culpable. Any time we use plastic, drive a car, turn on lights that are powered by something other than solar power — and even the manufacturing of the solar cells uses petroleum somewhere in its stream — we are really part of this mess.

  • I can absolutely guarantee that this could have been avoided. [snip] But, then BP wouldn’t have made so much money.

    The movie says *exactly* the same thing. There is absolutely no suggestion that there is anything heroic in drilling for oil. The heroism is strictly about people who risked their lives after the explosions to save their crewmates, and even those corporate execs. That’s it.

  • The house of cards and the boiling frog are us, the society that needs to run on oil.

    Yes. And that’s why this disaster could be a metaphor that the future will look back on and marvel that we didn’t stop it.

  • LaSargenta

    Yeah, I’ve been there, so to speak. Near disasters in the course of my job, people doing the right thing in a crisis. The problem is that the crisis happened because — like is said in that video I posted — they had dozed or gone to a bar after signing in to a safety class and their bosses had let them get away with it, or because someone didn’t give a shit that the sling was starting to fray, or they just didn’t inspect it every time…time is money/I’m too busy/I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years/etc/etc.

    So, in the crisis, I, too, help them. But, logically, part of my brain and soul is deeply angry and says “fuck ’em”. At a certain level, I simultaneously hold many people I have worked with in great esteem for their skills and practical creativity and with severe contempt for their brazen stupidity.

    I like working with the stubborn guys who work safely. They seem to only exist on union sites or work for themselves. Not that all union members are safe; but, people tend to be more willing to stick to safer practices because they know they can’t be bullied as easily by the boss when there is an organization behind them.

  • Cheryl Severin

    Deepwater Horizon FUll Movie
    watch here : http://bit.ly/2cNzQuZ <<<<

  • Cheryl Severin

    Deepwater Horizon FUll Movie
    watch here : http://bit.ly/2cNzQuZ

  • When Mark Wahlberg picks strong roles, he really shines. Deepwater was a great film and really sought to honor the tragic events that took place. We also talk at length about Deepwater Horizon in our latest podcast episode.


  • It honestly felt less exploitative than I expected. I think they really tried to pay honor to the lives lost, and the survivors who defied all odds.

    We talk at length in my podcast, Dim The Lights Podcast. Check it out and let us know what you think!


  • LaSargenta

    Your landing page for the podcast references the NYT article. I would like to take issue with your phrase “honor the tragic events”. These were events that were predictable through risk analysis due to the shoddy work and training of everyone aboard that rig and the companies involved in the management and maintenance. Aside from my own experience in drilling, let me just quote from that article you referenced and so flippantly remarked about that you hadn’t read yet.

    Crew members died and suffered terrible injuries because every one of the Horizon’s defenses failed on April 20. Some were deployed but did not work. Some were activated too late, after they had almost certainly been damaged by fire or explosions. Some were never deployed at all.

    At critical moments that night, members of the crew hesitated and did not take the decisive steps needed. Communications fell apart, warning signs were missed and crew members in critical areas failed to coordinate a response.

    was a failure to train for the worst. The Horizon was like a Gulf Coast town that regularly rehearsed for Category 1 hurricanes but never contemplated the hundred-year storm. The crew members, though expert in responding to the usual range of well problems, were unprepared for a major blowout followed by explosions, fires and a total loss of power.

    They were also frozen by the sheer complexity of the Horizon’s defenses, and by the policies that explained when they were to be deployed. One emergency system alone was controlled by 30 buttons.
    …Evidence is mounting, however, that the blowout preventer may have been
    crippled by poor maintenance. Investigators have found a host of problems — dead batteries, bad solenoid valves, leaking hydraulic lines — that were overlooked or ignored. Transocean had also never performed an expensive 90-day maintenance inspection that the manufacturer said should be done every three to five years. Industry standards and federal regulations said the same thing. BP and a Transocean safety consultant had pointed out that the Horizon’s blowout preventer, a decade old, was past due for the inspection.

    Every time I see a poster for this eulogising of the fuck-ups on that rig, I scratch out Heroes and write above Safety Class Dropouts.

  • Brian, please try to make your comments a little less spammy…

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