Deepwater Horizon

A Review by Alvin G. Burstein
Watching this film gave me a new perspective on the tragic explosion of the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico April 10th, 2010. At the time, the newspaper headlines made it clear that it was a major oil spill, that lives were lost, and that major ecological damage would be sustained. The film created
some new dimensions, human ones.

To link the story on the screen to the real event, the film begins with an audio of the testimony by a surviving crew member at one of the hearings held subsequent to the explosion and fire. The film ends with more of the testimony and with photographs of the eleven crewmembers who perished. Importantly, those photographs were family pictures, driving home the personal losses involved.

To further personalize the event, the opening scenes of the movie focus on Mike Williams, chief electronics technician for the rig, waking at home on the morning of the disaster, lingering in bed with his wife, Felicia, and saying goodbye to his daughter before leaving for work. The focus moves to
another everyday scene. Andrea Fleytas, the bridge officer, struggles to get her beat up Mustang to start, finally having to hitch a ride with a motorcyclist. These are “everyman” figures. But ones that will be caught up in a cataclysm. The message is implicit but clear. The bubble of security in which all of us live is much more fragile than we let ourselves think.

The visuals in the film are impressive in two ways. They provide an ongoing survey of the mechanical tangle of this Frankensteinian device for drilling thousands of feet below the surface. They take us high, to the overhead cranes, and below, into the depths of the sea, along articulated
complexities, bubbling and gurgling in eerie semi-light. The rig becomes a complicated monster managed, but, as it proves, not mastered, by very human and very mortal agents.

The monster is a metaphor for another monster, the web of organizations brought together to tap the oil deep below. There are companies with partly conflicting agendas. There are workers, focused on the nuts and bolts of the procedures. The film draws a clear, though implicit, distinction between the company “suits,” clean shaven, in jackets and ties, and the laborers, begrimed, helmeted and overalled. The company men are profit driven, wanting to avoid expense. The workers are task oriented, wanting to get the job done, and enjoy their pay. The metaphor linking the rig to its organizational context made explicit when one of the suits attempts to damp down complaints about
cutting safety corners. He compares British Petroleum to a machine with many parts that all have to work together smoothly.

The second major message of the film might be put in the form of a question. One hundred and twenty six people manned the rig, eleven died, all were scarred. How is one to balance their well-being, indeed, their lives, against commercial profit and loss? The film clearly suggests that in the Spring of 2010, on the Deepwater Horizon rig, the human beings involved were put at unacceptable risk.

If there is a shortcoming in the film, it is a lack of attention to the ecological aspect of the disaster. A single oiled sea bird crashes onto the deck of one of the rescue ships, a grim but inadequate token of an environmental cost that is still only partly knowable. Even given that demur, this is a film well worth seeing and, more, one worth thinking about

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