Deepwater Horizon (M). Director: Peter Berg. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich. 107 minutes
At the opening night of the Environmental Film Festival Australia in Melbourne last week, festival patron and former Greens senator Bob Brown highlighted the movement against oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight. He painted a picture wherein a major spill in the region could lead to an environmental disaster stretching as far from the site as the NSW coast. It was a sobering introduction to the opening night film, When Two Worlds Collide, Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel's riveting documentary about violent protests that broke out in Peru over the extraction of natural resources from the Amazon Rainforest. Such operations inevitably place considerable strain on the points at which ecological welfare, economic concerns and ordinary human lives converge.
The most salient reference point for the ecological risks represented by drilling the Bight is of course the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig, a sea-floor oil gusher flowed for 87 days, spilling millions of barrels worth of oil. Eleven people lost their lives in the explosion, but the environmental damage was catastrophic and ongoing, with one report in April this year finding that 88 per cent of baby or stillborn dolphins within the spill area 'had abnormal or under-developed lungs', compared to 15 per cent in other areas.
Arriving at the same time as the Festival (but not screening as part of it) comes Deepwater Horizon, a big-budget Hollywood film that recreates the events of 20 April 2010; the explosion of the oilrig, and the corporate and economic tensions that led to it.
Rather than an environmental treatise, this is history recast as action blockbuster, featuring muscle-bound movie star Mark Wahlberg as crewmember Mike Williams, a genial working Joe who is on board when the disaster strikes and who, armed with his mettle, physical prowess and general smarts, fights not only to survive but to bring several of his colleagues through with him.
The film properly focuses on the human lives involved. We glimpse Mike's home life with his wife Felicia (Hudson) and their young daughter, who provides her own cute, canned overview of the mechanics of oil drilling. This proves helpful later on when processing some of the story's technical elements.
"The failure to acknowledge the impact of the spill on the natural environment and on the 8332 species that inhabit the area is a major omission."
Later we see Mike wandering the deck of the Deepwater Horizon, exchanging jokes and jibes with his blue-collar colleagues. This establishes him as a relatable everyman and introduces us to an assortment of likeable supporting players, not all of whom are going to survive the day. As he goes, Mike fiddles with phones and smoke detectors; there are plenty of signs that not everything aboard is shipshape.
In depicting the chain of events leading up to the explosion, the film sets up a tension between the professionalism and pragmatism of the crew, who are employees of the rig's owner Transocean, and the corporate greed of lessor BP, who are champing at the bit because the drilling is weeks behind schedule.
The former are overseen by tough but affable 'good guy' Jimmy Harrell (Russell), who butts heads with 'bad guy' BP rep Donald Vidrine (a gleefully smug and sanctimonious John Malcovich). The reality was rather more complex than this, but as a plot device it works to build tension to an almost unbearable level by the time disaster strikes.
By the time the explosion and its afternmath — rendered by the filmmakers with awesome scale and realism — does occur, we are invested in the lives of the characters, and fear for their wellbeing. We see Felicia's reactions to the limited news that is filtering out, and her anxious wait for more of it. This reminds us how much is at stake for Mike and, by inference, for the others on board.
Later, when we are informed — by the silences that accompany a roll call on a rescue boat — of the lives that have been lost, we are invited to grieve for the deceased, and to empathise with the colleagues and loved ones who remain to live with the trauma of what they have just experienced. This is only fitting.
Yet given how deftly the film deals with this human drama, it is a shame its concern for the environmental implications is all but an afterthought. We are given one scene in which an oil-caked pelican crashes into a boat and flails about the cabin like a demented golden snitch. Even here, the focus is more on the danger to the crew than the plight of the poor bird.
The failure to acknowledge the impact of the spill on the natural environment and on the 8332 species that inhabit the area is a major omission in an otherwise very good film, about events that should stand as an object lesson for anyone scheming to unleash comporable operations on the Bight.
Tim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.
The Environmental Film Festival Australia is currently underway in Melbourne and will travel also to Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide. For more information including session times visit their website.