Deepwater Horizon starts deep, a mile deep, with a computer-generated dive to the Macondo oil well just before it blew out in April 2010. Overlaying the scene are the real testimonies given by Mike Williams, the rig’s Chief Electronics Technician. The combination sets the film’s tone: one part dramatic reconstruction and one part expensive Hollywood disaster movie.
In general, the oil industry gets little screen time in film, the offshore oil industry even less so. Here, however, long before any explosions, director Peter Berg does well to open up that world. It shows Port Fourchon, Louisiana’s southernmost oil hub, among its glittering bayous and wetlands. Within 40 miles of 600 offshore rigs, the port processes 18 per cent of US oil supply. It shows the helicopter companies that to-and-fro workers from land to sea. Most of all, it shows the complexity of the rig itself, with offices, board rooms, cafes and sleeping cabins sat atop four floating legs: ‘I still can't believe that’s a boat,’ says one employee as the enormous structure comes into view. Neither can we.
At first, the film’s script works hard not to glamourise nor demonise the 130-strong community who work the rig. However, the plot becomes warped in the mistakes leading up to the accident. Mainly, it sets up a conflict between the corporate suits at BP and the honest, blue-collared drillers of Transocean. The rig is not a pump, you see, but a drill rented to BP by Transocean during a temporary exploration phase. Once aboard, we learn that it is 43 days behind schedule to drill and cap a well 5,000ft below sea level and that the BP suits are pushing hard.
The plot is fair in some ways and unfair in others. It creates an easy villain out of company man Donald Vidrine (played by an eerie but enchanting John Malkovich) who cancels a vital ‘cement bond log’ test to save time and money. He then explains away worrying pressure levels with ‘the bladder effect’ – a shaky theory thought to have actually been suggested by a Transocean employee that night. Meanwhile, Williams (a restrained performance by Mark Wahlberg) stresses the need for more caution. The conflict moves the story along, but the overall effect is reductive. It ignores the culpability of numerous companies involved, as well as a faulty chain of command from BP’s headquarters in Houston. This complexity is better addressed in a fleeting scene with Andrea Fleytas (played by Gina Rodriguez) who tries to radio a mayday call during the chaos. A supervisor says ‘you don’t have the authority’ and prevents her.
When the blow-out happens, however, it is nothing short of terrifying. This is due to Berg’s efforts to avoid the ‘CGI-look’ – he built an 85 per cent scale model of the rig – as well as the raw geological nature of the event. A black column of oil shoots up the rig’s tower and fans out among the cranes like a Christmas tree. The lights glow whiter with the extra methane in the air, as the cast’s eyes grow wider with the reality of the danger. Fire ensues, it covers the rig, the workers and the water. Except for some superfluous shots of some stubborn American flags – surely they would have been among the first things to burn? – the film redeems itself through special effects.
Viewers seeking the story of the three-month oil spill that followed will be disappointed. Deepwater Horizon is not about the long-term disaster that has become synonymous with ‘the BP oil spill’, but about the few crucial hours that caused it. Despite a slippery plot, it brings the controversial industry of offshore oil firmly to the fore.