The Disaster Behind ‘Deepwater’

Big budget, factual errors — is the BP oil spill movie worth it?

by Carl Kozlowski | 30 Sep 2016 at 5:37 AM

The whole world was horrified by watching the “BP oil disaster” unfold in April 2010, when the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon suffered a massive blowout that set off a series of explosions. Eleven workers were killed and dozens more were sent scrambling for survival.

The resulting spill, as oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, was the biggest oil-related disaster in U.S. history, and forced the company in charge of the rig, British Petroleum, to pay $4 billion in damages.

Will people want to spend two hours watching people die or narrowly escape death if it’s rooted in well-known reality?

The story was dramatic, for certain, and likely one that many people are curious to know more about.

Yet as the new movie “Deepwater Horizon” starring Mark Wahlberg hits theaters nationwide on Friday, it raises a bevy of questions that its distributor Lionsgate — which footed the bill for the $110 million production — has to be worried about.

First off, there are some concerns that the movie might be too downbeat and intense to succeed at the crowded fall box office, with this weekend alone also seeing the release of the comedy “Masterminds,” the Disney family drama “Queen of Katwe,” and Tim Burton’s new family fantasy “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”

With movies most often regarded as a form of escapism from daily life and its problems, will people want to spend two hours watching people die or narrowly escape death if it’s rooted in well-known reality?

The key to making a blockbuster out of downbeat disaster seems to come from casting superstars in the lead roles, or those who are just breaking big, such as Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic" or Wahlberg himself in "The Perfect Storm."

The problem with "Deepwater" is that the movie doesn't spend enough time with most of the characters before disaster strikes to make you truly care about them.

The first ten minutes or so does show Wahlberg, as a real-life Deepwater engineer named Mike Williams, with his wife (played by Kate Hudson) and young daughter as he enjoys a quickie with the wife and plays with his kid before being flown offshore for a 21-day hitch on the rig.

The moment he sets foot on the Deepwater, however, the movie becomes bogged down in at least 20 minutes of details about an array of problems the ship's equipment is having.

As all sorts of technical jargon flies at the viewer, and a pair of BP officials are seen scoffing at the safety concerns of Williams and his boss,  Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the movie loses its sense of heart and winds up mostly being a spectacle of tragic explosions, fires, and near-death escapes.

"Deepwater" distributor Summit is heavily pursuing the faith-based film audience due to the fact that prayer factors heavily into the movie near the end. While that scene is indeed touching and powerful, it may very likely come off as too little, too late for many such viewers.

The fact that the movie is being released just six years after the actual tragedy occurred may help it by being a topic that's fresh in viewers' memories, but it's also hindered by the fact that — unlike "Titanic," for instance — its surviving characters are still alive in the real world. Some are complaining about the points in the movie where the truth is twisted for dramatic effect.

That's particularly true when the movie singles out the two BP officials in a villainous way and notes at the end that they were tried and acquitted on manslaughter charges for the reckless decisions that led to the 11 crew deaths — without mentioning that BP as a corporation had to pay out $4 billion in damages to the families and for cleaning up the Gulf.

One of the film's executive producers, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, says he and the "Deepwater" filmmakers have strived to ensure the movie is as accurate as possible. Since he was also involved with 2000's "The Perfect Storm," which Wahlberg starred in with George Clooney, he told The Hollywood Reporter he had an innate sense of how to guide the movie.

"There's always resistance from people who, rightfully, worry that Hollywood's trying to exploit a story — their loved ones. They want to be shown the respect they deserve."

Ultimately, however, "Deepwater" has proven to be the biggest risk of all — being a big-budget movie with no chance becoming a franchise with endless variations. And in the end, that fact helped make sure the film had its heart in the right place as a way of memorializing those who died and hopefully ensuring that such dangerous corporate malfeasance never happens again.

"It has those elements of a disaster movie but it's a true story," Wahlberg told the Los Angeles Times. "We didn't want to paint by numbers — you have to make it as realistic as possible. I loved the studio's courage to make a character-driven adult action movie where there's no chance for a sequel."

  1. film
  2. big-screen
  3. deepwater-horizon
  4. movie
  5. tragedy

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