Phil’s choice this week is another based-on-a-true-story movie, this time an oil rig disaster, Deepwater Horizon (2016). Directed by Peter Berg, it’s produced and stars Mark Wahlberg and also Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodrigues and Kate Hudson.
The Deepwater Horizon event happened in 2010 as the rig is getting ready to drill off the Louisiana coast. When Chief Electronics Technician Michael “Mike” Williams (Wahlberg) and Offshore Installation Manager James “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Russell) land on the rig after 3 weeks shore leave, they find out, and are not happy about workers assigned to test the integrity of recently completed cement work being sent home before they carried out a cement integrity test, on the orders of BP rig supervisors Donald Vidrine (Malkovich) and Robert Kaluza (Brad Leland). They’re trying to save money and the drilling start is already 43 days overdue. Jimmy rips Vidrine a new one, and demands integrity tests to be carried out before he’ll allow the drilling to go ahead. What he doesn’t know is that the cement is breaking up, and the integrity pressure tests makes matters worse. Eventually, the whole lot fails and sets a chain of events in motion that leads to the rig blowing up spectacularly, and the sad loss of 11 of the crew on the rig.
This was a really well done movie. It could have been exploitative but Berg’s direction is spot on, showing the panic and gruesome ordeals the crew have to go through as well as picking out the heroism and sacrifice of some of them. Wahlberg has come in for a fair bit of criticism in his career but he plays this straight and does a cracking job. The script gives him and his colleagues working men’s banter and it all feels really natural. Kate Hudson as Mike’s wife Felicia has a smaller part, a fair bit of it Skyping on the computer screen Mike has in his workroom, but is integral to giving the audience an emotional attachment. They wise~crack and tease each other mercilessly but the love shines through. Kurt Russell is as cool as always, and does the steely eyed bossman Mr.Jimmy proud. There’s an amazing scene when he’s blown out of the shower and flung around his quarters when the blowout happens, and the make-up department must’ve had a field day with his face to show his injuries. Malkovich as the snidey cost cutting Vidrine makes you want to punch his lights out, but he does have a strange accent I couldn’t place. The camera work was stupendous and cinematographer Enrique Chediak pulled out all the stops to film all the chain reaction pieces and then the final explosions.
The blowout and subsequent explosions are crafted well with no obvious CGI though there must have been some. I do know they made a ginormous set 85% scale recreation of the rig inside a giant two-and-a-half million gallon water tank to make it feel realistic. Of course they did Hollywood it up a bit, in the movie Mike rescues Andrea Fleytas (Rodrigues) the rig’s Dynamic Position Operator, and they jump off the top of the rig into the sea to escape the burning deck (upon which no boy stood 🤪🥴) when in real life just Mike jumped, Andrea had fallen out of a descending life raft into the sea. But Mike Williams was a big part of getting the movie done right and on the set as a consultant. Whatever liberties they did take, the survivors and families were happy with the result, and Berg emphasised that he was focussing on the men who were just doing their jobs. The bad decisions made by the BP men are not glossed over, and at the end of the movie we are informed that Vidrine and Kaluza were the only two people prosecuted for their actions and were charged with eleven cases of manslaughter. In reading newspaper articles about movie versus reality, the movie makes a good guys bad guys situation between Transocean – the company that lease the rig to BP, and BP itself, but in real life there were faults on both sides, it wasn’t so black and white. You also see clips of the testimony of the real Mike Williams and at the very end a notice saying “the blowout lasted for 87 days, spilling an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.” I think at the time more was made of the dreadful oil pollution and loss of fishermens livelihoods etc than the actual people who were on the rig, and this film redresses the balance a bit and gives testament to the heroics of the men who saved their fellow workers.
Fraggle Rating: A must see.
Our second movie is also based on a true story, and is Netflix’s The Dig (2021). Directed by Simon Stone, it tells the story of the 1939 excavation of buriel mounds at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and the incredible anglo-saxon treasure trove of grave goods, as well as a buried ship. It is an amazing story and as a Time Team addict I’d been looking forward to this, though did wonder if it would be boring for Phil.
The wonderful Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, a widowed landowner in Suffolk who hires Basil Brown Ralph Fiennes, to excavate some hilly mounds on her land. Basil takes the job after a bit of salary wrangling. He accidentally gets buried in one whilst digging when a trench collapses on him, and is dug out by Edith and her servants and survives. He starts another mound and finds iron rivets from a ship, which means the site would have been for someone of great importance, your average Joe doesn’t get a ship’s buriel on land! In the meantime, whilst Basil is getting his rivet checked out, Edith is off to London for a hospital appointment, and it turns out her heart is severely damaged from having rheumatic fever as a child, and she’s not long for this world. She keeps it quiet, but looks progressively ill throughout the movie. A prominent local archaeologist James Reid Moir (Paul Ready) wants to get in on the dig and Edith sends him packing, but when news of the discovery gets out, Charles Philips, (Ken Stott) a Cambridge archeologist turns up and requisitions the dig by order of the Office of Works as the dig is now of National Importance. Philips brings in a team including Peggy Piggot (Lily James) who in spite of being taken on because she is small and light, finds the first anglo-saxon treasures, and Basil finds a Roman gold coin. Philips wants to send the treasure to the British Museum, but in effect Edith owns it all, and she decides to keep it safe at her home, bearing in mind the war is just beginning, and London is likely to be bombed. In the end she does decide to gift it to the museum with the provisor that Basil gets the credit for the find.
That’s about all you need to know plot wise. It sounds dull but it really wasn’t at all, Phil thought it was brilliant so that’s my yardstick. The beauty of this movie is the how Stone moves the story forwards at a gentle pace yet keeps your attention. Mulligan and Fiennes give their characters a connection, a love of place, the past and the future and a mutual respect. A tiny hint of a romance that could have been if circumstances were different, and passes. Basil’s wife May is his stalwart supporter and though a small part Monica Dolan makes a good impact on the movie. Basil is gruff, taciturn and proud, but suffused with the need to dig into the earth and find the past, Edith is sharp, intelligent and had been thwarted from attending University by her father, and Mulligan shows her deteriorating health with dignity. Edith has a son Robert (Archie Barnes) who’s a sparky little lad who takes a shine to Basil which is reciprocated. There’s a side romance that didn’t really need to happen, Peggy and Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) have a one night stand as Peggy’s husband Stuart (Ben Chapman) is having what I assume is a bromance with one of the other diggers, but it doesn’t last long as Rory has to join the RAF the next morning. It didn’t happen in real life at all. But that’s my only gripe really, it’s beautifully filmed, and England looks gorgeous through Mike Ely’s cinematography. Lovely soundtrack by Stefan Gregory that underpins but never overwhelms the movie.
I did wonder why they never show the amazing treasures found in the grave, only a glimpse here and there. But the more I thought about it this movie wasn’t about the treasure, it was about the people who made it happen and their desire for history and knowledge.
Fraggle Rating: Bloody Brilliant.
Further reading: I’ve followed a Professor of Archaeology’s blog for a long time, Professor Howard has a brilliant blog and often relates TV programmes such as Walking Dead, The Last Kingdom, Vikings and others to mortuary practices in real life archaeology. He wrote about this movie here, and did a much more indepth review of it with a lot of thought provoking comment. Worth a read if you’re a nerd like me. 🙂
If you’d like to see the actual treasures they found, the National Geographic has some good photo’s and a brilliant one of the ship, HERE.