‘Deepwater Horizon’ movie gets the facts mostly right, but simplifies the blame

Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams in "Deepwater Horizon." : David Lee, Summit-Lionsgate Films

The movie “Deepwater Horizon” gets the facts right, and admirably so – but only up to a point.

You could imagine all manner of ways in which Hollywood could have turned the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico into a more traditional disaster movie. You could invent love stories, improbable acts of square-jawed heroism, maybe throw in a sea monster. Instead, Peter Berg’s film, which describes itself as “based on true events,” generally sticks to what actually happened on April 20, 2010. The biggest exception is that the film simplifies the culpability. (I covered the oil spill for The Washington Post and later wrote a book about the BP oil spill and effort to plug the well.)

The filmmakers get high marks for capturing the texture of rig life – the immense scale of the operation, the huge pipes and machinery involved, the powerful geological forces at work, and the specialized terminology of the crew (you probably don’t have to know what a “cement bond log” is to grasp the central fact that it’s a routine and potentially critical test of well integrity, and BP chose to skip it).

For most viewers this will likely be the first glimpse of the extraordinary drilling operations that are at the foundation of our fossil-fuel-based energy industry. Until April 20, 2010, few people gave much thought to deepwater drilling. (In fact, when the rig exploded and 11 people died, it was still not a front-page story in most newspapers, probably because few of us knew how to interpret the concept of a rig fire or even, two days later, the bulletin that the rig had sunk. I certainly had no idea how big one of these rigs was until I went to one stationed right on top of the disaster site.)

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The filmmakers show us many of the things that happened on the day and evening of April 20, 2010. We see two corporate officials from BP flying by helicopter to the rig, which was owned and operated by Transocean. The BP officials were there to give the rig crew a safety award (you can’t make it up). We see the massive blowout preventer on the sea floor, which is rumbling and bubbling and being ominous. And we see the all-important “negative test” on the well integrity that evening.

This was a test to determine if the cement job had worked. Deepwater Horizon was never going to tap that well; a second rig was going to come along and handle production. Deepwater Horizon’s crew needed to cement the bottom of the well, put a cap on it, and sail away. First there were many abandonment procedures, including a “negative test,” in which heavy drilling fluid (“mud”) was pulled out of the well to see if the cement job would hold.

But the initial test gave an ominous result: There was pressure up the drill pipe. That was a sign that gas had invaded the well.

The BP well site leader on duty, Donald Vidrine, ordered a second test, this time on a second line, called the kill line. That second test showed no pressure. Vidrine and other leaders on the rig decided to ignore the continued pressure up the drill pipe, and instead interpreted the second attempt, on the kill line, as a good result. The drill crew proceeded to pull mud out of the well – and then all hell broke loose. The gas surged up the riser pipe, reached the rig, and met a spark. Boom. Fire engulfed the rig. Eleven people died.

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Much of the movie is devoted to the fiery chaos that night. It’s the “Towering Inferno” at sea.

The movie funnels culpability toward Vidrine, who is played with scenery-gnawing enthusiasm by the always-entrancing John Malkovich. Malkovich’s Vidrine has a thick Cajun accent, supreme confidence and a taste for fine wine. Imagine James Carville crossed with Hannibal Lecter.

Vidrine does not seem to care much for safety as he drives the crew to complete the well, which is 43 days behind schedule and costing BP more than a million dollars a day. Vidrine is shown hypothesizing that the initial bad result of the negative test is due to something he calls a “bladder effect” from mud in the well.

Well, hmmm. That’s not the story I heard, and not what people testified under oath. Investigations of the blowout pointed to a Transocean employee as the source of the “bladder effect” hypothesis. That employee died in the explosion, so we’ll never get his version of events.

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The investigative record has other limitations: Vidrine never testified at the federal hearings held by the Coast Guard and the agency that regulates drilling. His lawyer at the time said Vidrine suffered medical issues as a result of the blowout. He was always kind of a mystery man in this whole disaster. (I contacted his attorney, Bob Habans, this week and he said neither he nor his client has any comment on the movie. Vidrine, along with BP well site leader Robert Kaluza, was indicted on a charge of manslaughter, but the government later dropped the charges.)

The much bigger problem here is that, by focusing so much of the culpability on Vidrine, the movie seems to side with one of the arguments that came from BP management – that this disaster was the result of mistakes on the rig, rather than a broader array of mistakes and compromises by BP engineers in Houston.

After the spill, BP produced a report, known as the Bly Report (after Mark Bly, the BP official who led the company’s internal investigation), which conspicuously did not mention that the night of the blowout, after the problematic negative test, Vidrine spoke by phone to a BP engineer in Houston named Mark Hafle. They discussed the weird test result and Vidrine said he’d proceed with the well abandonment procedures. The elision in the Bly Report of this seemingly critical discussion came back to bite BP when a federal judge had to determine the company’s liability for the oil spill.

Deepwater drilling is full of risks in the best of scenarios, and for this particular well there were additional problems. That part of the Gulf had experienced an earthquake in 2006 and likely made the formation more fragile – and BP knew it. Drill crew members referred to it as the “well from hell.”

The BP engineers were concerned most with “lost returns” – the fear that drilling mud and cement that would push into porous rock rather than be circulated back up the rig. They didn’t use very much cement at all in the final cement job, just 60 barrels. They used nitrogen foam cement, which exerts less pressure on the rock formation but is potentially less reliable. They didn’t use very many centralizers to keep the well casing in place. The engineering team in Houston made a flurry of last-minute design changes. Everyone knew that there were risks involved in these decisions but the attitude seemed to be let’s-roll-the-dice.

Hovering over all of this was that they were operating in very deep water, and deep water is a different, novel realm for drilling. The chemistry is different down there. But as one industry expert told me during my reporting, the oil and gas industry didn’t make adjustments as it went into deeper water.

A commission, appointed by President Barack Obama, conducted an investigation of the disaster and published a massive report that discussed what went wrong. Among its conclusions:

“As this narrative suggests, the Macondo blowout was the product of several individual missteps and oversights by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, which government regulators lacked the authority, the necessary resources, and the technical expertise to prevent. We may never know the precise extent to which each of these missteps and oversights in fact caused the accident to occur. Certainly we will never know what motivated the final decisions of those on the rig who died that night. What we nonetheless do know is considerable and significant: (1) each of the mistakes made on the rig and onshore by industry and government increased the risk of a well blowout; (2) the cumulative risk that resulted from these decisions and actions was both unreasonably large and avoidable; and (3) the risk of a catastrophic blowout was ultimately realized on April 20 and several of the mistakes were contributing causes of the blowout.”

So there was plenty of blame to go around. But that’s not the kind of thing that works in a movie.

Recently, a friend of mine who wrote a nonfiction book recounted a meeting with Hollywood folks. They had one overriding question: “Who’s the villain?”