“Cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie,” wrote the director Jean-Luc Godard. Hollywood’s record with movies “based on real events” makes clear what he meant, and Deepwater Horizon, the new film telling the story of BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, is no exception.
The film does a terrific job of recreating the look and feel of the offshore oil industry, and of showing the challenges of working in isolated and hostile conditions. Yet it also fumbles some key details. It tells only a partial version of the story, setting up a simplistic opposition between the heroes of Transocean, which owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon rig, and the villains of BP.
In reality, employees of both companies were at fault. Mistakes were made by some of the 11 men who were killed when BP’s Macondo well blew out and caused the rig to explode in flames. Hollywood is always uncomfortable with shades of grey, and they are sprayed over with primary colours here.
The screenplay sticks pretty closely to its source, a New York Times article on the rig’s final hours. Some of the events that seem most like dramatic inventions, such as a courageous dash across the burning rig to try to start a generator, are documented facts. But each time the film deviates from the record, it is to show Transocean in a better light and BP in a worse one.
Mark Wahlberg, who stars and co-produced, plays Mike Williams, an electronics technician with Transocean who is given a fictitious act of heroism, saving the life of his colleague Andrea Fleytas.
Jimmy Harrell, one of Transocean’s two senior employees on the rig, played by Kurt Russell, is similarly a sympathetic figure, depicted as well-liked by his crew. That is authentic, but the script glosses over official criticism of the rig’s command structure.
As the fire rages, peppered with fragments of glass, we see Mr Harrell fighting his way up to the rig’s bridge to activate the emergency disconnect system and shut off the well. What is barely shown is the “command confusion at a critical point in the emergency”, possibly delaying the disconnection, which was highlighted by the US Coast Guard’s report on the accident.
Other criticisms of Transocean levelled by the Coast Guard are also skated over or ignored.
BP, meanwhile, is represented principally by the reliably sinister John Malkovich as Donald Vidrine, one of the “well site leaders” supervising the drilling.
A key scene depicting the “negative pressure test” — a way of telling whether the well had been properly sealed with cement — is characteristic of the film’s determination to believe the worst of BP. Mr Vidrine is shown citing a spurious phenomenon called the “bladder effect” to explain why the test is good, even though some of the pressure readings are worrying.
That scene is an invention: none of the inquiries into the disaster was able to identify who had put forward the idea. One BP employee said it came from a Transocean supervisor who was killed in the subsequent explosion.
To find out what really happened, as best we know it, you have to read the reports from the Presidential Commission or the US Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation, or the findings of fact from Judge Carl Barbier in the main court case over the disaster.
What audiences can take away from the film, though, is a vivid sense of the extraordinary engineering feat that is deepwater drilling, and renewed respect for the men and women who contend with its difficulties and dangers every day. In that respect, at least, Deepwater Horizon has to be judged a success.