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Deepwater Horizon - a film commentary

On April 20, 2010, 41 miles southeast of the Louisiana Coast, the worst oil disaster in U.S. history struck. It was a human-made disaster not a natural one. The offshore oil rig known as Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean under contract with British Petroleum (BP) with Halliburton also involved, was not properly built and engineered to withstand the forces created when a drill is driven 3.5 miles deep into the sea. The catastrophe took the lives of 11 men. After 87 days, 210 million gallons of oil were released to contaminate the Gulf of Mexico, destroying vast marine and wildlife habitats and cutting mercilessly into the lifelines of both the fishing and tourism industries. The consequences are still felt today and will be for the foreseeable future. Last year, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in the history of this country.

The rig was 43 days behind its schedule to start pumping oil. As this film depicts, and it is based on the New York Times reporting of the disaster, concerns about budget and time had BP cancel a test of the sea floor cement block that protected the rig, its personnel and Louisiana from the risk of eruption. Secondary tests of pressure in the piping were contradictory and ignored by the lead BP manager on board the rig (evilly played by John Malkovich in his cold and contained way), who had the crew press ahead with operations.

This extraordinary film should come with a black box warning because of how real the events are rendered. The warning should be about the terror that will penetrate your defenses as you become a witness to the horrors of first mud exploding into the rig from below, then oil, then gas and inescapably fire. The pyrotechnics will consume you and you will want to duck to avoid collapsing steel and projectiles of every sort.

Peter Berg, who gave us Lone Survivor and Battleship and soon Patriots Day (about the Boston Marathon bombing), directed this film and must have been wearing protective gear. He assembled a stellar cast who convincingly take you into the horror of the devastation that befell the rig and its crew. Mark Wahlberg plays the chief electrical technician, Kate Hudson his land-locked wife feeling the fright of uncertainty that all families experience during a disaster, Kurt Russell the chief safety officer, Mr. Berg plays a role himself, and of course there is the mesmerizing John Malkovich. They all do justice to this tale of corporate greed, malfeasance and irresponsibility.

It is surprising that as many of the crew survived the inferno and the structural collapse on the rig. A nearby oil barge helped to rescue many of the men and women who escaped the rig in lifeboats or by jumping into the sea, oil fires in the surrounding ocean notwithstanding. The US Coast Guard was there within a half hour, by helicopter and ships, and air evacuated those with life threatening injuries. Those that survived no doubt suffered PTSD, though the film stops before the aftermath begins.

Deepwater Horizon is as close to film reporting of this massive disaster as we are apt to observe. I followed the story as it unfolded six years ago, but could not imagine the events aboard the rig, and the determination and heroism of some of the men. The only silver lining of a catastrophe is that it reveals the fiber that we humans have within us, there awaiting an unwelcome moment such as this for its activation.


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