This week Australia has been experiencing a safety roadshow built around the Deepwater Horizon movie and two guest speakers. The afternoon sessions have been well attended and the discussion fruitful but does the film improve the viewers’ understanding of safety or misrepresent it?
The film is a Hollywood blockbuster and features all the tropes of that format. It has been designed to entertain the broadest audience possible and so will inevitably disappoint many viewers who are familiar with deep water oil rig operations. For instance, the timelines are condensed so that the disaster seems to have occurred within the first day of a shift changeover. The decision-making process is streamlined so that the real level of discussion, consultation and on-shore communications is not representative.
But so what? Will the non-safety audience leave the cinema with an appreciation of the complexity of exploring for oil? Definitely. Will it understand the high risk nature of working in isolation miles from shore? Definitely. Will it know what caused the fault? No.
This film is about people under extreme stress and how some of them can be considered heroes. But movie heroes need a nemesis and it is the depiction of BP in this role that is most unfair. The movie shows the only consideration BP has in operating Transocean’s oil rig is profit. This simple interpretation of events makes it easier to identify the corporate aims and goals and to illustrate the magnitude of problems that the oil rig workers, particularly “Mr. Jimmy”, have to overcome and therefore magnify their heroism.
There was some initial concern that the film would exploit the dead and injured workers. That is not the case as the film is almost totally about the harsh conditions in which the people worked and the extreme challenges they faced when the rig blows. The film ends with a list, and photos, of the dead workers and a brief where-are-they-now for the main characters.
This film is also not a film about a disaster that few people have heard about. Most viewers will be well aware of the environmental damage that resulted. This point is not addressed in the film except, perhaps, for one scene with a oil-soaked pelican. The film does not address the government inquiries or the penalties that were imposed on BP. Most viewers will be well aware of these consequences.
One of the safety strengths of the movie is that it reveals the working conditions of offshore oil rigs. It also shows the fragility and risks associated with these work sites. This provides viewers with a new context in which to understand safety management, even though that context may be the simplified profits v safety dichotomy.
That simplification, required by Hollywood movies, also misrepresents safety management by streamlining the consultation required for making sound decisions in, particularly, a high risk work site. There is a risk that viewers may see safety decisions based on thin information as being appropriate .
This reviewer held off seeing the film until this workshop event. The film works as a disaster movie and does have some heart, especially when the Kate Hudson is seeking information about her missing husband. Her worry and feeling of helplessness, although a short scene, was effective.
All disaster movies are also safety movies but most disaster movies, by their nature, do not focus on the causes of incidents. These movies are about overcoming adversity for that is where the heroism and struggle lies. It is necessary to look elsewhere for the causes and, in the case of Deepwater Horizon, there is plenty of material.