When it happened, we all knew that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was unprecedented in scale. The whole nation watched the black, billowing smoke from that rig with a sense of horror and foreboding. They were justified. The crude oil gushing out from a drill- hole on the seafloor wouldn’t be plugged for months. Nobody seemed to be able to offer the right technical fix. Chemicals dumped in the ocean to disperse the oil volatilized it into tiny light molecules and made an oil-dispersant cocktail vapor that blew ashore on wind. People in Gulf communities couldn’t escape the smell and the irritation in their respiratory systems and skin. Nightly news images of birds soaked in black sludge drew contemplation of all the dying wildlife that we could not see. Life was under threat in the most dire way, and most of us watched the nightmare unfold like it was a movie on a screen. If we stopped to admit the truth, we knew we were complicit in the tragedy—willing or not. We are the demand for the oil that they were drilling for.
Six years later, our carbon-linked planetary crisis looms even larger, with more tangible evidence and urgency. So Deepwater Horizon, the Peter Berg directed 2016 movie seems even more relevant. Yet in spite of its stunning and moving disaster sequences, it leaves me feeling that the traditional Hollywood story-telling model is inadequate to help us face this crisis. My impression, of lessons not learned, is driven home by the fact that the movie doesn’t point to what we should do to change course.
At the outset of the action, the camera puts us viewers inside the chopper carrying oil workers to one of the Gulf’s many off-shore drilling platforms. These mechanics, electricians, navigators, and crane drivers operated the thousands of feet of pipes, pressure valves, and clamps that tapped into oil beds 35,000 feet beneath the ocean floor. The floating-platform, drill-rig technology used by Deepwater Horizon had been designed for shallower conditions as follow-up investigations after the disaster uncovered (and were reported in-depth in the New York Times.) The movie hints at this in the opening sequence: neither the rig’s pipes nor robotic detection of pipe corrosion could be fail-safe when pushed to greater depths than ever before.
The plotline sets up the characters’ corporate allegiances and hierarchies, critical to understanding how decision-making was done on rig operations (also the subject of intense scrutiny in the investigations): BP leased the drilling/exploration platforms from Transocean, a company with a good safety record. Transocean’s top-ranking official in charge of rig operations, Jimmy Harrell—or “Mr. Jimmy” as he is called in the movie—receives an award for the rig’s continuous safe operations early in the movie. (He’s played by Kurt Russell.)
This upbeat scene begins to fade fast, with inconclusive tests of the cement walls’ integrity, so Mr. Jimmy orders a further negative-pressure test. Again, the results suggest instability. As the tension builds, the movie paints BP executives as Hollywood’s anti-heroes—the profit-conscious risk takers who insist on pushing to drill despite questionable equipment testing.
Finding fault with a bad actor palliates us when things go awry, but blaming disasters on a specific decision made by a specific actor at a point in time presents a false narrative, according to James Meigs in Slate, who is writing a book on the science of disasters. Based on his study of organizations responsible for big technology failures, e.g. NASA, Meigs faults the misplaced tendency to home in on a single point of malfeasance. A more robust explanation is that a series of small, questionable decisions become accepted practices, and organizational delusions are perpetuated. People easily forget the limits of safety ‘as designed’. Practices that are in fact operating in the risk margin become normalized through repetition. If, as luck would have it, no untoward incidents happen, people in the organization develop a general feeling of confidence, whether warranted or not.
The movie hints at innumerable irregularities, as the chief electrical technician (played by Mark Wahlberg) recounts a never-ending list of problems. The awesome technology of the floating drill-rig notwithstanding, its thousands of moving and electrical parts are in shambles. In spite of its brilliant design, the rig is deployed to untested depths at the ill-fated Macondo site in the Gulf.
Meigs also discusses the inherent weakness of human optimism: We favor data that conforms to our expectations; we question the veracity of data that defies them. BP executives undermined the Transocean operators who hesitated at the problematic pressure-testing results. In the movie, BP’s Don Vidrine insists that the results cannot be trusted because the sensors are faulty. He goads the Transocean operators to override the problematic results. Power plays, social acquiescence, and monetary pressure (BP was losing money at this complex drill site) overcome adherence to safety procedures. Even people with a strong concern for safety standards, such as Mr. Jimmy, were inevitably drawn into compromise.
Almost immediately, those results became tangible. The drills had tapped into a bedrock seam of oil and gas under tectonic pressure and the unstable pipe system could not contain it. Mud, water, gas, and oil shot up and out onto the rig surface, throwing workers off their feet and soaking the rig with oil. The flammable natural gas in the mixture was sucked into the air intakes of the rig’s generators where it quickly caught fire. Moments later, the rig began to burn. Shortly thereafter the fires blew so big that the inferno showed up on satellite images. Try as they bravely did, the crew could not cap the oil well on the ocean floor—the blow-out preventer and clamps did not respond as pressure from below continued to build. Multiple safety systems failed under duress.
Crew members scrambled to escape from a raging inferno, some jumping directly off the platform into the murky, oil-slick waters. I had been unaware of the harrowing stories and dangerous escapes of trapped rig workers because they were largely unpublicized back in 2010. The movie puts a deserved spotlight on their ordeal. Eleven rig workers died under horrifying circumstances. The others were rescued by Coast Guard and nearby vessels.
A poignant moment in the movie shows rescued workers on the deck of a nearby craft, having stared down death by fire, asphyxiation, and explosions. Traumatized, they get down on their knees, hold each other’s shoulders and pray aloud together, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name, forgive us our sins, deliver us from evil…”
I ponder the nature of evil as the movie closes. Evil, the word, may seem overstated, but as the movie closes, I feel there is no other word more suitable. This however, is a kind of evil that surpasses the movie’s set up of Hollywood-mold archetypes: the heroic oil workers versus the evil, greedy executives who drove the machinery to failure. Hollywood does like its villains. It understands the satisfaction of embodying all the prejudices, warts, and fears we have about ourselves. When villains threaten the world, we can feel good about defeating them. But this archetype represents an utter failure of imagination in our culture, literature, and art to come to terms with the larger, existential threat to the planet caused by us, and by our seemingly unappeasable production of dirty fossil-fuel energy.
To build upon Meigs’ premise, I believe the movie missed a larger narrative. Evil was not only in the deaths of eleven men on that oil rig and it wasn’t only in BP’s focus on economic considerations over safety.
You and I use carbon-spewing energy in every aspect of modern life. Our banking and financial futures are tied to oil, gas, and coal. Even as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide destroy the climate on a planetary scale, our bureaucracies permit firms to pursue fracking and drilling for more oil in new sites. The pursuit and use of oil is exterminating entire species, changing oceanic chemistry, and undermining the basis of life itself. Willfully we pursue paths that undermine our own food production and freshwater sources at the service of oil profits. We are on an irrational path. Therein is evil.
The movie makes only passing reference to birds that will never fly again but nothing of other aquatic life. Allowing 200 million gallons of black crude to gush into the Gulf of Mexico is evil because it murdered millions of living creatures, decimated ocean ecology, and caused long-term toxicity in the reproductive organs of surviving animals. So attribute more evil to our self-absorption that keeps us from perceiving value in life that isn’t human.
Newsweek recently reported that as a result of exposure to the toxic oil-dispersant chemical cocktail six years ago, people in Gulf communities continue to suffer epidemic-scale neurological, reproductive, and respiratory system ailments today. Evil is the continued glorification of a business system whose profit logic destroys life, pollutes water, and runs roughshod over people’s lives. We have no mechanisms to check the businesses and stop their excesses. The irony that online ads touting BP’s culture of “production safety” appear on my Web screen as I write this galls me. Evil is a massive judicial system that cannot find a way to prosecute or jail BP executives as an example for other industrialists.
Evil is continued governmental support for firms that are doing the equivalent of what BP did six years ago. Witness militaristic police in riot gear using batons, rubber bullets, sonar blasts, and tear gas to intimidate and arrest Native Americans protesting an oil pipeline in North Dakota that will inevitably develop leaks and send toxic crude oil into their sole freshwater source, the Missouri river.
It is difficult to confront the evil in ourselves. Yet it is us, our political structures and our courts, that fail to stop sociopathic business leaders who put short-term oil profits ahead of an emergency-paced transformation to a carbon-free future.
Our cultural stories are grand deceptions about who we are. We operate on the illogical theory that endless growth is possible despite finite resources held in delicate balance by nature. King Kong won’t destroy the world. We will—by failing to appreciate the true nature of our agency on earth. The evil is in our limited imaginations. This is what we should make movies about.