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Film / Deepwater Horizon

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"I don't know if it's stupid, but it ain't smart."
Rig worker Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien), on the crew Tempting Fate

Deepwater Horizon is a 2016 dramatization of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson star alongside relative newcomers Dylan O'Brien and Gina Rodriguez in a production that depicts the start of the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history. Many of the characters are direct representations of real people, including protagonist Mike Williams (played by Wahlberg).

In April 2010, a group of Transocean crew are transported to the semi-submersible drilling rig Deepwater Horizon for the final stages of drilling the well they've been working on. Also along are some supervisors from BP, the company they're drilling for, who want to know why they have gotten so far behind schedule. Despite the myriad of problems the rig is experiencing, the BP reps insist on expediting the process regardless of the concerning warnings. When a test of the well that was insisted on results in a dangerous blowout, a series of events cascades out of control, threatening the entire rig and the lives of everyone on board.

Tropes present in this film:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: To be expected, given that the normal, real-life characters are played by model-like Hollywood A-listers Kate Hudson and Mark Wahlberg.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie barely touches on the disaster after the rig sinks. This counts as Pragmatic Adaptation as well given how agonizingly depressing the entire situation was from the very beginning, with no single film able to depict all of the related details. The vast amount of oil that poured into the Gulf of Mexico virtually sterilized it and destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds upon hundreds of people. It took drilling multiple relief wells over months of time to finally bring the massive oil spill under control. Even years and years later, shrimp and fish got found with major birth defects and other problems.
    • In fact, the actual cause of the leak was only conclusively proven after the Blow Out Preventer was lifted off the sea bed and examined. It turned out to have contained a rather serious design defect, which meant the leak continued even after the "scram button" was repeatedly pressed. Things wouldn't have been peachy if it had been made correctly, but it was one of the key reasons why the disaster kept going From Bad to Worse.
  • Agony of the Feet: Rig manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) has to pull out of his bare foot a long shard of glass, which pierced it when the explosion threw him around like a ragdoll. Later on, Jimmy and collegue Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) work with others to free a fellow worker stuck in the floor with an exposed leg fracture, and they do so by snapping the bone back in the leg barehanded to make it fit in the floor crack. Both moments are as squicky as they sound.
  • The Alleged Car: Andrea has spent a lot of time and effort getting her mustang to run but to no avail. Becomes a Chekhov's Gun when Mike tries to use it to talk Andrea out of her Heroic BSoD.
    • The rig itself could qualify as an Alleged Boat. Mike informs us that 10% of the machinery onboard (roughly 300 in all) needs repair and can rattle dozens of them off the top of his head. Including the blowout preventer. All because BP wouldn't give them the time to fix them.
  • Analogy Backfire: BP supervisor Don Vidrine calls the drilling crew "nervous as cats" when they protest against pulling out the drilling fluid that could be (and was) the only thing holding the well back. One of the drillers (Stephen Ray Curtis) later retorts that cats aren't nervous, and that he had a cat who mounted his Labrador.
  • Anger Born of Worry: When they get to the hotel, Mike is accosted by a man demanding to know where his son is. When Mike can't answer, the guy gets belligerent, yelling at him until security comes and drags him off, still demanding that someone tell him something.
  • Artistic License – Geology: The film has multiple foreboding clips of bubbles seeping out of the sea floor deep below the surface of the water. It makes for a chilling image, but analysis has reported that nothing like that happened. It's a pretty strong case of the Rule of Perception as it means audiences get more of a sense of the oil being a trapped monster ready to burst.
  • Artistic License – History: While, generally speak, the movie is far more true to life than the average pseudo-historical Hollywood film, Deepwater Horizon still has several instances of this.
    • An early scene shows the preparation for a school project about how the rig "tames the dinosaurs" by digging for oil. Sure enough, a driller finds a fossil tooth for one of the protagonists to take home. The whole thing is cute, but it's all fiction.
    • The Transocean crew that actually operates the rig is portrayed at almost complete loggerheads with their BP higher-ups. This is considerably exaggerated compared to the more ambiguous situation in real-life. Some Transocean personnel actually did argue to go ahead with the drilling, and BP people felt unsure enough to asked for additional guidance.
    • Transocean employee Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) fights her boss over sounding a critical alarm when gas starts rushing into where the drilling crew is. The understandable truth is that she suddenly faced an array of warning lights going off all at once and got overwhelmed. This is a serious downside of the Billions of Buttons found in many real-life industrial scenes.
    • No witness accounts corroborate rig worker Dale Burkeen (Jason Kirkpatrick) performing a Heroic Sacrifice to move a massive crane and rescue his friends. Instead, he had already been operating the crane, right in harm's way, when disaster struck. However, he did indeed work to move the equipment before struggling to get to safety. In the film as well as real-life, he sadly dies in the process.
    • Right after escaping the burning rig, the survivors didn't gather together on their rescue boat for a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Something very similar happened the morning after the disaster, though, after assistant driller named Patrick Morgan spoke out an "Our Father" and many others joined in to pay respects to the dead. Counts as a chronological case of Adaptation Distillation.
  • Bad Boss: The higher ups and more middle management types at BP, to put it extremely mildly, don't come off very well. The hands-on supervisors right above the regular rig workers, though, show serious foresight and suffer through the disaster just as much as everyone else.
  • The Big Board: BP corporate figure Don Vidrine (John Malkovich) uses this to draw a large diagram illustrating his idea as to why the negative flow test (an important safety test run before the bigger work got started) had such a dangerous reading even though no mud (or oil, for that matter) came shooting back up into the rig. While the trope is played straight, the people in the room with him regard his theory with strong skepticism.
    • A notable inversion of what actually happened. The "bladder effect" idea about a false pressure reading actually came from the Transocean crew. Don felt uncertain enough about this to run things by his own superiors (off safely on land), who unwisely advised him to just drill. Both BP and Transocean personnel then came to an agreement, and, unfortunately...
  • Big Damn Heroes: The crew of the Damon Bankston, who was supposed to just be there to collect the drilling mud and move on with the Deepwater Horizon to the next location for another oil well, were the first rescuers on scene when the whole nightmare began and the rig erupted in flames. They quickly sounded the Red Alert, deployed their rescue boat, and got their medical bay ready for the wounded and keep them safe until the USCG arrived to airlift the most injured back to Louisiana for medical treatment at the hospitals while the Bankston transported everyone else back by sea.
  • Book Ends: The opening lines of the film are Mike being sworn in to testify before the investigation board as to the happenings aboard the rig. The film ends with clips of various testimonies before the board.
  • Break the Haughty: Before the blowout, Don Vidrine can't convert oxygen into carbon dioxide without making a smug remark to the Transocean crew. After getting caught at ground zero of the blowout, he spends the rest of the movie in a state of shock, covered head-to-toe in oil and mud. He barely rasps out two words for the rest of the movie and can't even look Mr. Jimmy in the eye.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The crane operator, Dale Burkeen, is seen briefly while Mike checks out the overall status of the rig. Dale later secures the loose crane when it threatens to basically knock the rig over.
  • Chewing the Scenery: This is practically the trademark of John Malkovich's smarmy character Don Vidrine, especially when it comes to business matters. Both Bad Boss and Evil Is Hammy apply.
  • Creator Cameo: Director Peter Berg plays Mr. Skip, the person Jimmy speaks to just after getting off the helicopter.
  • Creepy Child: Downplayed. Mike's daughter knew a little too much as to how babies are made. And she seemed a little too interested in getting a baby brother. Mike and Felicia are just as creeped out as the audience may be.
    The only reason I didn't knock is because I want a brother.
  • Death Glare: When they see each other again after the explosion, Jimmy gives Don the coldest glare ever, made more intense through only one eye. Later, on the Damon Bankston, Jimmy gives another when he realizes Don was the only one in the drilling shack to make it out alive.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: although one could make a very solid argument that it’s an aversion since the disaster doesn’t even start until past the halfway point of the movie. The first half goes into a lot of detail about what life is like for an oil rig worker intermixed with a lot of tension about the impending disaster. Since the general public knows very little about how an oil rig works it could be seen as very interesting and since you never know when the fire was gonna start it was also very tense.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Just as in the real-life incident, the film portrayal of the disaster is a textbook case of disaster dominoes. The chain of progressing events go on in a way that each of them depend on the prior moment to occur. The removal of any of the events would have broken the chain or at least significantly slowed the progression of the disaster.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The audience knows that the rig is going to turn into a fiery hellhole sooner or later, and the slowly building tension throughout the first part of the film is reminiscent of a horror movie.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In the first scene, when the inspection rover heads back up, a single drop of oil seeps out of the ground by the well.
    • When Mike's daughter, Sydney, has finished her kitchen table presentation (a partial case of Lecture as Exposition, as she's only preparing for the actual presentation), the honey ("mud") gives way and the soda ("oil") comes shooting up the pipe.
    • When Mr. Jimmy meets a pair of BP execs at the airport, he asks one of them to take off his magenta tie. Mr. Jimmy explains that a magenta alarm is the worst kind of alarm on an oilrig. No prizes for guessing what the color of the alarm that goes off when the well blows.
    • When Mike first meets Dale, Dale invites him to a night of fishing. Mike doubts that anybody will be fishing that night.
    • Dale also tries to bet Mike that they'll back at the same spot. Mike doesn't take him up on it. We know that they wouldn't.
    • Bubbles also ominously appear on the sea floor, deep below the rig, before the blowout occurs.
    • Several of the shots on the rig before it explodes prominently feature either first aid kits, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors (some of which Mike was fixing), and/or life vests. Don't forget the most ironically-timed safety award ever.
  • From Bad to Worse: The entire movie is built on this. First the negative pressure test has a pressure reading into the red, then the same test on the bleed pipe leads to a blockage in that pipe that gives a 0 psi reading in the control shack, but leads to a pressure buildup in the pipe, that then comes gushing up in a fountain that reaches to the top of the derrick. This causes fumes to get into the air intakes, leading to the engines to overclock to the point that they jam, and then explode, catching all that free oil on fire.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: The negative pressure test on the bleed pipe leads to a blockage that builds up pressure and causes the blowout and eventual fire.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The highest of the high-ups at BP, who from their offices safely on land keep pushing everybody below them to hurry up and get the drilling job done, count as this to a T. However, the officials depicted directly in the film, on the scene at the rig, get the worst characterization.
  • Hate Sink: Two words. Don Vidrine. John Malkovich's smarmy corporate jerkass gives the Weyland-Yutani Corporation a run for their money.
    • This is somewhat of an Artistic License – History situation. Both Vidrine and his lesser shown college Robert Kaluza, while portrayed as uncaring villains in the film, were only partly responsible for the disaster as people. They were representatives of a flawed corporate culture that didn't act independently or otherwise get out of line with the company's overall attitude.
  • Heroic BSoD: When he truly has a moment to collect himself, the sheer horror of what had just happened crushes poor Mike, understandably enough.
    • Andrea has one when she and Mike are about to jump off the rig. No one can blame her, as all the life boats are gone, and her only way off the rig is to jump several feet into an ocean that's on fire.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Dale the crane operator tries to secure a crane that's about to knock the derrick on top of his friends. He succeeds but gets killed when flying debris blows him out of the operator's cab. The other workers react in horror.
  • Historical Domain Character: Nearly all of the main characters are based on the actual Deepwater Horizon crew.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: While the real Mike Williams did in fact jump the equivalent of 10 stories to escape the burning Deepwater Horizon, many of the other heroic actions performed by Wahlberg's Williams in the film - including rescuing Mr. Jimmy, crossing the burning rig to turn the power back on, and pulling Andrea Flyte along with him as he jumped - were exaggerated or made up entirely for the film.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Vidrine was absolutely culpable, but the film makes him out to be an irredeemable sociopath at worst and an unfeeling bureaucrat at best.
  • Hope Spot: There are a few notable moments. When the toolpushers close the two annulars during the initial kick, stopping the chain of Disaster Dominoes, they have the sheer pressure break through both of them and shoot up the derrick. Later, Mike and Caleb manage to get the generators going again, which gives the bridge at least some control over the situation, but they lose power again almost immediately. Even when the workers try to cut the pipe, the blades are unable to penetrate it and get sheared off by the intense pressure, leaving them with no means to keep the rig's drift from tearing the well open.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Implied by Sydney's comment to Mike and Felicia that she didn't interrupt them because she wants a baby brother.
  • Irony: The day of the disaster BP presented the Horizon with their highest safety award. It sounds made up for the film. It wasn't.
    • Vidrine disregarded the results of the first pressure test, claiming that it had to be a false reading. The second test he went with was the one that gave the false reading.
  • Kitchen Sink Included: Discussed (when the executive asks what is broken on the platform he gets a Long List - of course with the kitchen sink last) but no actual one shows up.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Vidrine had a lot of direct responsibility for the blowout (in the film for sure, at least, while in real-life things were rather complicated) due to his insistence that the confusing readings from the negative pressure tests were the result of the "bladder effect," a theory he co-formulated with Kaluza that states the reading is the result of outside pressure covering the annular. When the drilling mud first bursts out through the pipe, Vidrine himself is on the drill floor to be covered in it.
    • This is somewhat subverted in the end given that Vidrine did survive the disaster while several others (including those that were just a few feet away from him) died horribly. In Real Life, Virdine (yes, he's a real person and not a Composite Character meant to personify BP malfeasance) wound up beating the wrap for manslaughter while being convicted for another charge.
    • It's worth noting again that even while Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza are real people, their portrayal in the film isn't quite true to life. For one, Vidrine wasn't the source of the "bladder effect" hypothesis. More generally, the business' constant pressure of "schedule over safety" was an institutional flaw in corporate philosophy, quite different than one or two men demanding success above all else. The manslaughter charges got dropped in large part since prosecutors believed Kaluza and Vidrine had gotten somewhat scapegoated for systemic corporate failures and poor processes. The quasi-composites serve as the audience's Hate Sink, understandable enough, in large part since they just happened to be the faces at ground zero. Neither Kaluza nor Vidrine were called to testify at the Coast Guard and other hearings following the disaster, but the testimony on record (available here) damns the general corporate attitudes that led to the disaster as a malformed philosophy throughout BP.
  • Lecture as Exposition: This happens... but not quite. The audience just see the practice for one. Sydney's, Mike's daughter, demonstrates Mike's job by shaking a can of soda up and then punching a metal pipe into it. This, followed by pouring honey down the pipe to keep the soda from coming out, is planned to show her classmates (and clearly demonstrates to the audience) the general principle of what drilling mud is and how it works.
  • Light Is Not Good: Or at least, it wasn't a good sign. After the blowout, natural gas seeped into the rig's air intakes leading into the engine, overworking it as it generated excess power. As a result, all the lights on the rig shone brighter than usual. It was the only warning the rig got, minutes before it was swallowed up in an explosive firestorm.
  • Long List: Mike recites a list of "mission-critical equipment" not working, ending with the air conditioner.
    Kaluza: Everything but the toilets, huh?
    Mike: No, no, you got problems there, too, but I don't do shitters. That's Engineering.
  • Manly Tears: After getting off the rig and back in a nice, safe hotel room, Mike collapses in a sobbing heap on the floor, where his wife and daughter eventually find him.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: As in his previous Berg-helmed outing, Wahlberg half-heartedly attempts his real-life subject's southern accent for about one scene before dropping into the familiar Boston accent audiences know. Ultimately this works well enough since his attempted southern twang is much more distracting than his expected Boston accent. The fact that both accents are "working-class everyman" kinds of dialects fitting the character helps.
  • Oh, Crap!: The crew have a strong moment of this when they see mud start welling up through the seals around the pipe.
  • Out of the Frying Pan: When the well blows, foreman Jason Anderson tries to get two of the roughnecks (Shane Roshcho and Adam Weise) to safety by sending them to mud pits. Unfortunately, things are even worse in the mud pits, as pipes were bursting with mud, and the out-of-control pressure was tearing the room apart. It was ultimately consumed in a series of explosions claiming the lives of everyone down there. Including the two roughnecks who were taking refuge.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Transocean Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) is a calm, logical, and plain-spoken man dealing with a tough situation even before it goes From Bad to Worse, and the mutual sympathy that he and his employees have is authentic.
  • Red Alert: Once they see the rig burst into flames, the nearby Damon Bankston goes to General Quarters, sounding the alarm and deploying a rescue boat to head to the Deepwater Horizon to recover survivors from the water that couldn't escape via lifeboat or life raft.
  • Soft Water: A special aversion takes place here. Mike and Andrea actually did survive jumping several stories off of the rig and into the Gulf. It should be mentioned that 'survive' isn't the same thing as 'immediately got to safety without injury', though. Offshore workers are, however, trained on how to jump off a rig into water in a way to minimize injury.
  • Sole Survivor: The film has an odd example. Out of all of the people present in the drilling shack when the blowout occurs, Don, who is actually not part of the drilling crew, was actually leaving the control room when tragedy strikes. He becomes the only one to make it out alive.
  • Strawman Has a Point: Discussed in-universe. Mike and Mr. Jimmy have a hard time refuting Vidrine's "bladder effect" hypothesis after the pressure test. Despite the unstable results of the test, Vidrine points out that if there was as much pressure as the computer said there was, there'd be drilling fluid seeping out of the well, and there wasn't. Mr. Jimmy ultimately couldn't argue with that, and grudgingly green-lit the drilling. Subverted, as there really was pressure in the well from all the oil and natural gas that crept up the drill pipe, which was responsible for the confusing results.
  • Tempting Fate: All over the film before the blowout, despite wanting to make sure everything is in order before the well is flowed, with the Horizon almost two months behind schedule on completing the Macando well and moving on to other projects, Vidrine wants the well flowed ASAP, despite all the warning signs. How many warning signs? Let's see:
    • The crew in charge of the cement bond log are sent home before logging the condition of the cement in the well, which is not secure in sealing the well properly, leading to the catastrophic failure of the cement and the blowout.
    • Vidrine agrees to the negative pressure test to ensure the well is properly sealed, but when the reading comes back well in the danger zone of over 1000 PSI in the main bore, Vidrine diverts it to the "bladder effect" and agrees to a second test on the kill line, only for the kill line to become clogged and give off a false reading of 0 PSI. Despite the truth of the matter that with both readings not equal in their results, Vidrine mistakenly believes the main bore reading is false, not the kill line, and orders the well flowed. Very big mistake.
    • The annular valves manage to temporarily stop the flow of oil, methane, and mud coming up the well bore, but they can only take so much strain in holding back that much pressure before completely failing since their design was not made with a potential blowout in mind.
    • Andrea sees her monitor showing the dreaded magenta gas alarms all up the derrick and realizes the worst-case scenario of an impending blowout. She tries to send out a mayday call over the international emergency frequency of channel 16 on the radio, but is stopped by her superior, Captain Kuchta, who tells her off thinking she's overreacting, until she points at the camera feed from the well being obscured and Kuchta takes notice, immediately going out to check himself while Andrea tries again to signal the USCG. Then the engines jam, a spark ignites the methane and oil, and all hell breaks loose, forcing Kuchta to have to send out his own mayday call after realizing he was a fool for not trusting Andrea's earlier fears because he held rank over her. Only made worse by the one BP member on the bridge that witnessed the ignition telling off Kuchta as to if he can't see the huge inferno now engulfing the Horizon.
    • The Emergency Disconnect System, or EDS, was improperly designed for cutting the well bore and sealing it from further catastrophic flow of the oil from the Macando Prospect. The blind-ram shears were not designed for cutting a well pipe that had been bent from stress of the oil platform moving off-center by a large degree, and jammed before being completely snapped apart by the extreme pressure of the oil flowing up the well. If the entire Blowout Preventer had been properly built back in the factory before being applied to the well in its current state because of BP wanting the well flowed and the Horizon moved on to other projects before losing any more time and money on delays, Mr. Jimmy could have stopped the well and saved what was left of the Horizon.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: As the film begins, the Horizon is 43 days behind schedule on the well they've been drilling. BP is riding them to get it finished and ordering measures taken to try and make up lost time, measures that have the Transocean people scratching their heads. When Mike asks a few roughnecks if it's stupid what they're doing, they say they're not sure it's stupid, but it "ain't smart". Eventually all this leads up to an uncontrolled pressure buildup that causes a blowout and eventual explosion. Since the general story is known to the audience going in, so much of this screams of Tempting Fate.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Mike and Andrea eventually left Transocean. However, Jimmy stayed with them, and continued to work for Transocean until his death from cancer in 2021.