Thursday, February 15, 2018

Somewhere Over the Deepwater Horizon... Unnatural Disasters...In Search of a Villain

I'm always kind of leery about movie based on modern historical events, i.e., anything that's happened within decade or so of the movie being made about it. I think it's difficult to get the perspective needed to truly treat the subject matter in as dispassionate and objective a manner as possible, which is the goal - stated or implied - in any kind of based-on-a-true-story movie. Unless you're someone like Oliver Stone, whose movies like JFK are actually best classified as historical fan fiction, as they borrow the names of actual people, but in no way attempt to represent actual events in any effort to achieve any semblance of verisimilitude (much to the protestations of Stone himself). Don't get me wrong: I love JFK (the movie). I think it's scarier than most horror movies (something about conspiracies, when done well, creeps me the fuck out), but it's also mostly based entirely on the mad howlings of conspiracy theorists, and its wild claims are easily debunked with the combination of a few minutes of your time and a working Internet connection.

Despite my misgivings and the temporal proximity between its subject matter and its development, I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed Deepwater Horizon. The film covers the immediate aftermath of the disastrous explosion and resulting catastrophic oil spill of the titular drilling platform, depicting how the workers on the oil rig were able to survive those harrowing first hours until they were able to be rescued. It's a surprisingly apolitical depiction of the worst ecological disaster in recent memory, choosing - quite correctly if somewhat unsatisfactorily - to focus on the human cost and toll instead of taking the all too easy approach of vilifying BP, the oil company in charge of the site and ultimately held responsible for the horrific events of that fateful day, including the deaths of eleven people.

Deepwater Horizon was released in 2016, a mere six years after the initial event (and only three since cleanup of the spill were "completed"), so the fact that I wasn't left with a bad aftertaste of narrative bias seemed impressive to me. In fact, Deepwater Horizon might aptly be described as "Towering Inferno in the middle of the ocean," obviously taking its cues from the disaster films of the past (both recent and not-so-recent) as it depicts honest, hardworking people in a struggle to survive during extenuating circumstances (like being Vietnamese and in close proximity to Mark Wahlberg).

The film was able to cover the context as much as necessary, then focus in on the people. In this case, the main point of view was Chief Electronics Technician Michael "Mike" Williams, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. I’m not sure why Williams was chosen as the primary point of view other than they had to choose somebody’s point of view to anchor the narrative. According to the movie, at least, Williams' position in the organization puts him in a position to interact with both the Transocean leadership team (Transocean actually owned the Deepwater Horizon and was contracted by BP) and the lower level workers, so the audience gets a good cross-section of life aboard an oil rig.

Naturally, the movie treats Williams extremely sympathetically, and honestly, if you're going to be portrayed in film, you could do a lot worse that Wahlberg. No wait, that sounds like a backhanded compliment. The word "underrated" gets thrown around a lot, but I think Mark Wahlberg still falls into that category as an actor. While usually at home in and best known for macho, tough guy roles kicking metric tonnes of ass, he's able to deliver fairly nuanced performances as well (well, except for The Happening, which may have been part of a meta-twist from M. Night Shyamalan the depths of which won't be discovered until centuries from now when anthropologists piece together our society after Donald Trump has long since reduced it to a pile of radioactive rubble). Wahlberg is able to depict Williams as a regular dude who was able to act heroically in a desperate situation, and also as a vulnerable human being who suffers psychological trauma from a horrifying event.

The other "main" characters are treated with the same sort of integrity; nobody is extraordinarily terrible or wonderful but simply human. Kurt Russel is great, as always, this time portraying Offshore Installation Manager James "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell, the gruff but fatherly leader of these ragtag bunch of oil rig workers. He's kind of like Bruce Willis' Harry from Armageddon if Harry were a three dimensional character, not a crazed psychopath bent on straight up murdering the people working for him, and, you know, a real person. Another standout was Gina Rodziguez as Andrea Fleytas, the Deepwater Horizon's navigation officer, who you might recognize as the titular character of the TV series Jane the Virgin. Or you might not. I don't know your viewing habits.

No one with a goatee could possibly be evil.
Another key character, BP manager Donald Vidrine as portrayed by John Malkovich, serves as a proxy of sorts for the BP leadership team. Deepwater Horizon was surprisingly subdued in its treatment of the BP executives, and of course the company itself, which after the whole mess was sorted out ended up pleading guilty to several charges, including 11 counts of manslaughter for the those that died on the Deepwater Horizon that day, and paying upwards of 20 billion in damages, fines, and cleanup costs and a total of 62 billion dollars in liabilities. Which, comparatively, isn't a whole lot when you're a company that talks about annual revenue in the hundreds of billions dollars.

Vidrine is portrayed as a corporate man for sure, more focused on the bottom line than, well, anything else, but he's not a frothing at the mouth villain. I kept waiting for the filmmakers indictment of BP, whether explicitly or through their portrayals in the movie. Given the circumstances and everything learned in the investigations in real life after the incident, it would have been exceedingly easy to portray these asshats as the real-life Bond villains that they seem to be. But director Peter Berg steers clear of indicting BP too harshly. The movie mostly avoids venturing too deep into the moral weeds, instead, focusing on the efforts of the oil platform workers trying their best to survive the disaster.

This is, of course, a more tactful decision, but it's also a safer one. As much as I was glad that Deepwater Horizon showed the strength and perseverance of the survivors, I was disappointed by the lack of any significant commentary on the people most directly responsible for the disaster. Maybe it wasn't politically expedient or maybe there wasn't enough time in a typical feature-length film to cover the stories both of the survivors of a man-made disaster and the people who caused that self-same disaster.

Maybe full dissection of the circumstances that led to the event is better suited to a slightly different genre, like a documentary narrated by Matt Damon. The disaster in the case of Deepwater Horizon was man-made as opposed to natural, so it seems kind of strange to largely ignore the underlying causes. I'm not even necessarily talking about specific people, although it certainly was human error that caused the disaster, and there was a clear scale of culpability to be established, beyond a certain threshold on which individual people could have been clearly identified as acting in immoral and, indeed, criminal ways.

Upon further consideration, it seemed that what really led to the catastrophe was really a systematic failure. That is a failure of a system, or really several systems working in parallel. A system is created by people and is enacted by people, but it also becomes self-perpetuating to a point, which is, after all, kind of the point of a system. Or at least, the end goal of any system that is designed to earn the moniker of "effective" in corporate meetings discussing things like efficiency metrics and whatnot (But first, the whores!). In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the economic system at the heart of the BP oil company came to dominate other systems, including systems governing health and safety as well as quality control.

A system is kind of like an orgy in that it requires individual participants to provide the initial momentum, but then takes on a life of its own, and the longer it goes on the more people tend to go with the flow and the less they question what's happening. The same thing happened with the leadership at BP. The wheels of the money machine were greased even more by the lubricants of greed and complacency. The movie scratches the surface on these factors. It's made abundantly clear at the start of Deepwater Horizon that the Transocean drilling team is behind schedule, and it's costing millions of extra dollars a day for BP, who is pressuring Transocean to expedite the whole process. (The irony, of course, being that if they had taken a little extra time and spent a couple of extra million, they would have avoided losing billions. But what do I know? I'm not a career mathtrenaught.)

And this is kind of one of the underlying horrors of the whole affair. There was a systematic failure, but it wasn't because everything went terribly wrong; the system was, unfortunately, working exactly as designed. The catastrophe depicted in Deepwater Horizon is the result of what can happen when everything goes terrifyingly right.

There was a system put in place that prioritized profit above all else, including human lives. It was designed to minimize the importance of other systems in its ecosystems, including ones governing health, safety, and quality. And once that kraken was released, not even Liam Neeson himself could stop it.

So, can't I just like, you know, punch the fire out? Or Maybe
shoot Matt Damon in the head again?
As it should be obvious based on what I've written in earlier, putting the blame on a system is not in any way an attempt to alleviate the social, legal, criminal, or moral burden from the people who had most direct control over the corporate economic system at BP. Corporate responsibility should never be a shield for individual responsibility, and individuals most definitely should have been brought to justice (real life spoiler: they weren't).

Another horrifying component is, if we were in the same position as the executive and leadership at BP, would any one of us have acted differently? We'd all sure like to think that we'd be the one to buck the system, throw the Steve-Jobs-approved sledgehammer through the giant TV screen, and give the metaphorical (and maybe even literal) finger to Big Brother. But the terrifying thing is that with the tremendous pressure of a system of that size bearing down on any individual, most of us would likely fall in line and follow the script. Which is precisely why I think that it is morally incumbent on those in the media to properly depict the moral failings of individuals to act as a warning or reminder of our own weaknesses reflected back so that we do not repeat those same mistakes.

It's also to fight back at another underlying horror of any catastrophe, natural or man-made: the loss of control. About halfway through the movie, Andrea Fleytas, the navigation officer, is trying desperately to keep the Deepwater Horizon from drifting out of place in order to mitigate the flaming hellscape that was unfolding all around her and her colleagues. One by one, as the fire destroys the electrical and mechanical systems on the rig, the engines lose power, and Fleytas looks on helplessly as the platform begins to float out of place.

In the moment, of course, the immediate threat of fiery death was the most imminent and obvious cause for anxiety. But at the heart of any trauma is the overwhelming sense of a loss of control. It's a terrible feeling to lose that sense of agency, that sense that even if we can't control everything, we can still exert some influence on the universe. But then to have that universe push back and demonstrate that it clearly doesn't give any more or less of a fuck about any notions of self-determination from a race of hairless apes on a tiny, blue speck floating in the cosmos than it does about anything else, is a truly harrowing and humbling experience.

As a wiser fellow that myself once said: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, the bear well, he eats you. (OK, it was Sam Elliot.)


Overall, Deepwater Horizon did proud by the real-life survivors of the disaster, and as a bystander, it seemed to do a great job at honouring both the survivors and the victims of that tragedy. I still think Berg missed an opportunity to also flesh out the true villains of the disaster, but honestly, if there was a choice between two movies to be made, one honouring the courage of the survivors and one indicting the people directly responsible, I'd probably go the same direction Berg did. My rating for Deepwater Horizon is 7.5/10 = The Collective Heads of Hardworking People Fighting Like Hell for Survival


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