Hollywood's ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Doesn’t Convict All The Right Villains

Although visually impressive, the film fails to send a powerful and much-needed message about the importance of operational safety.

Anyone who’s studied disasters knows that there’s never just one reason why they happen — there’s no smoking gun, no evil culprit, no one single incident that sets it all off.  

The reality is that major disasters are the final summation of several miscalculations and small errors. There are always several points throughout the course of events when a simple change could have avoided the whole thing entirely.

In the end, the truth about disasters is murky. Of course, that doesn’t play as well in Hollywood, where the truth looks better in black and white.

The recently released “Deepwater Horizon” film starring Mark Wahlberg is an attempt to humanize a tragedy that is often thought of in terms of environmental damage. It chronicles the days leading up to the well blowout and explosion that killed 11 men working on the rig and triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Although, the movie does a fantastic job giving viewers a sense of what it’s like to work on an ocean rig and portraying American oil workers as everyday heroes, it fails to send a powerful and needed message about operational safety.

Any good disaster flick needs a villain, and for that, the film’s makers found an easy target in BP. The company, which owned the well but leased the Horizon rig from Transocean, has shouldered a large amount of the blame for the accident and with good reason.

Investigations found that the mega oil firm cut corners at several turns on the Horizon, including an incident documented in the film when the company failed to run a test called a “cement bond long” that checks the well for hollow spots. The film makes no illusions about why BP skipped the test — it saved the company $125,000, and several workers on the rig start humming “For The Love of Money” by The O’Jays to show they get it.

Once the real trouble starts and the crew gets unsettling “negative pressure” test results from the well, BP managers are portrayed as being convinced that the results were being misinterpreted and that the well was secure.

The truth, however, isn’t so clear cut and the bigger culprit is in some ways more nefarious than evil, mustache-twisting oil executives putting profits ahead of safety.

According to several disaster experts, one of the real villains of the Deepwater Horizon accident was a culture of safety complacency. This false sense of safety can happen anywhere and has been named as the underlying culprit in other major disasters like the Challenger explosion.

In an excellent analysis by Slate, experts call the phenomenon the “normalization of deviance,” while others call it “failure creep.” The long and short of the theory is: A long record of safety lulls organizations into a state of complacency and widespread acceptance that the worst would never happen because it hasn’t happened yet. 

Various accounts of the day’s events showed multiple failures on several levels of command on the Horizon. In addition to BP’s corner cutting, the exhaustive New York Times investigation upon which the movie was based found plenty of blame lied with Transocean:

Transocean had also never performed an expensive 90-day maintenance inspection that the manufacturer said should be done every three to five years. Industry standards and federal regulations said the same thing. BP and a Transocean safety consultant had pointed out that the Horizon’s blowout preventer, a decade old, was past due for the inspection.

The report details a number of ways that multiple parties involved in the rig failed to properly maintain safety features or train rig workers on procedures.

The film also misrepresents the role of BP’s managers in interpreting those final well pressure tests. Instead of BP managers pressuring Transocean workers to proceed despite the troubling results, multiple accounts showed confusion over the test results was shared by all involved in the decision to move ahead with work on the well. Most likely, complacency creep had made them forget to seriously worry about the worst case scenario.

Overall, the Horizon was strewn with safety flaws, from failures by the companies involved including BP, Transocean and Haliburton to the underlying problem of complacency creep. As The Times put it: “The Horizon was like a Gulf Coast town that regularly rehearsed for Category 1 hurricanes but never contemplated the hundred-year storm.”

Of course, it’s Hollywood — not a safety training video — so complicated safety details aren’t going to win screen time against the drama of big explosions.

Yet, the movie misses an opportunity to portray any of those flaws to the viewer, and with it, a chance to send an important message about how smart people can easily make costly and dangerous mistakes on the job.  

More in Operations