Is the Deepwater Horizon movie good for safety?

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.

Kevin Jones

6 thoughts on “Is the Deepwater Horizon movie good for safety?”

  1. Hi Kevin
    I too held off seeing the movie and probably wouldn’t have seen it if wasn’t for the road show. Apart from the concern about how Hollywood would treat the incident – they have to have heroes and villains, I have spent a long time working in the oil and gas exploration industry and understand that incidents usually have their genesis well before all the holes line up. There are usually many factors at play that do not show up in incident investigations. I was, like others as mentioned in your article, pleasantly surprised at the way relationships, the way people interact and conditions on the rig were portrayed. However it was a very simplistic representation of a complex situation. It didn’t explain things like contractual arrangements between BP and Transocean where BP carried the responsibility – this has now changed. If it happened today it is more likely the focus would be on Transocean – not BP. Nor did they cover the culture that had developed on board and previous process safety incidents that, whilst not resulting in a lost time injury were indicators that things were not well. (How many organisations do the same thing?)

    The challenge for safety professionals and for employees and managers, is to take a much broader, holistic approach to safety and move away from the linear and traditional thinking of the workers at the worksite is the issue.

    Overall I don’t think the movie is good for safety as it was far too narrow in its perspective, reinforces good versus bad and money versus safety. It was much more complex than that. I would not use the movie, or excerpts from it, in any workshops I facilitate.


    1. Trevor, thanks for commenting. I agree that much was omitted from the movie but I think that is the nature of any movie that is “based on real events”. I always recommend my safety colleagues who want to understand the incident better to start at the official investigation reports from the Chemical Safety Board (a body unfortunately to be axed by President Trump).

      I am not sure that any book has yet been identified as the definitive history of the Macondo incident but I would love a reader to point me to one.

  2. Hi Kevin –

    Good question: Is the Deepwater Horizon movie good for safety? I don’t believe the movie carried any intent to be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for safety. It is, as you mention, a Hollywood blockbuster intended, I suspect, for the broadest possible church. But whether that outcome means it delivers something ‘good’ for safety?… hard to really know.

    I’ve watched it twice – the workshop session last Tuesday in South Yarra is one of those times. From my perspective, at the very least the movie’s subject matter has helped spark discussions that have carried covert safety themes within and among my work colleagues with skin in the game. And while I cannot personally speak of the nuances of life on-board an oil-rig, if the reactions of those who’ve (apparently) “been, there. Done that” are anything to go on, they have been complimentary of how the movie portrayed things like the detail in conditions onboard a rig and the dynamic of the relationships between commercial entities such as – in the movies case – BP, Transocean and service providers such as Schlumberger. (And on that, their jury remains out about who held the final say within the context of the chain-of-events leading to the disaster. “Popular” shop-floor opinion seems to lean towards the buck stopping with BP. But, others are not so sure – even this many years after the incident).

      1. No problem at all, Kevin. As for not catching up at the workshop, I know better than to interrupt a man who just sat down to enjoy his pre-movie choc-top…

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