“Deepwater Horizon” good for action, not for the environment

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures.

An oil-slicked pelican launches itself through the open doors to the control room, thrashing violently until collapsing on the floor of the boat, dead. The audience visibly flinches, and a silence follows. The action picks up again, and the dead bird is soon forgotten.

This is the story of the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig stationed in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Louisiana. Director Peter Berg and the dynamite cast of Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich and Gina Rodriguez bring the true story of the 2010 BP oil spill to life. The film, Deepwater Horizon, premiered at TIFF on Sept. 13.

Deepwater Horizon is definitely a movie worth watching. Though a bit slow to start, the acting is incredible and the story even more so. It is a gripping triumph of human emotion, and although it was action-packed, I never felt like the action took precedence over the story of the people on the rig. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its flaws.

On April 20, 2010, an outburst of natural gas broke through a newly poured concrete barrier of the rig. It travelled up the highly pressurized rig, and when the equipment malfunctioned, it caused an explosion that killed 11 workers and injured 17. The film follows the crew as they struggle to make their way off the rig to safety, making sacrifices along the way.

The film tells a deeply personal and highly published story: the crew’s simultaneous survival and demise as they escape the rig’s collapse. We see what perils they faced in a very raw, endearing way. At the end of the film when the credits roll, we see the names of those who didn’t make it off the rig. It’s a sobering moment.

And then we see a shot of a sunrise, with the words, “This was the biggest oil spill in US history.” And it’s true. In fact, we’re still suffering from the consequences of the environmental havoc the spill wreaked.

“The explosion and subsequent oil spill has left a legacy of toxic pollution that will linger on for many years threatening many already endangered species,” wrote Ryerson professor Dr. Abednego Aryee for the Aquatic Science and Technology journal in 2013.

In just 87 days, about 3.2 million barrels of oil had leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An estimated 50 to 100 thousand birds were lost across 93 species, the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees report. They also reported that nearly 159,000 juvenile sea turtles died due to oil exposure.

And all we saw was one oil-slicked pelican.

Deepwater Horizon told a very worthy story of the crew of the titular rig, who were fighting their own battle in the wake of the spill. The human loss is shocking and should not be overlooked, not for a second, but there were other losses. It neglected to tell the story of the thousands of animals. And maybe that’s not the story that they were trying to tell, but why not?

“Blockbuster movies [are] made for the purposes of entertaining audiences, not educating masses,” said Stacey Foh, president of the Environment and Urban Sustainability Student Association at Ryerson via email. Foh said that environmental messages are “too big of an idea” to fit into a regular movie.

“If mass media is going to communicate what really needs to be communicated, it needs to shift what it holds as important when telling stories,” said Foh.

“The overwhelming problem is that discussions of science are boring,” said Ryerson professor and environmental planner Dr. Ron Pushchak. “We don’t make environmental movies.”

Pushchak said that these stories, like that of the environmental aftermath of the BP oil spill, need to be told, but that environmental stories only get told if there are triggering events. He said that the tale of Deepwater Horizon was told because that was “such a trigger.”

The mass media doesn’t cover environment stories because it’s not what readers, sponsors and publishers want, said Pushchak.

The spill has produced environmental costs that, “are still being borne,” but, “you wouldn’t know that because all you get is BP telling you, ‘come back to the Gulf of Mexico, everything’s normal,’” Pushchak added.

But not everything is normal. Species affected by the oil spill have taken a hit. How many more hits are they supposed to take before we notice that there’s a problem? If it happens again, should we cast Brad Pitt to star in the movie, or should we focus on the environment and the devastation that lies there?

In late December 2015, CBC reported that Transocean Management Ltd., the offshore drilling company who worked on Deepwater Horizon, announced that the Henry Goodrich rig will return to the coast of Newfoundland. This July, all operations of the rig stopped following a leak of nearly 1800 litres of hydraulic fluid into the Atlantic Ocean. Nobody was injured. The Henry Goodrich crew was lucky.

But this isn’t the end of environmental disasters like that disparaging 2010 spill. “The Deepwater Horizons will continue,” said Pushchak. “It will happen again, somewhere. Hopefully not off the coast of Newfoundland.”

Deepwater Horizon was released in theatres Sept. 30.