The action film Deepwater Horizon has a lot of elements that make it one of the best movies of the year—a smart screenplay, excellent action, immersive special effects, and a compelling narrative. (See my review at the Independent Institute here.) Missed in almost all the reviews of the movie, however, is a brilliant example of foreshadowing through visual storytelling that, frankly, drives much of the success of the film overall.
As a story, Deepwater Horizon faced what many writers would think is a fatal flaw: everyone knows the ending. Deepwater Horizon was the name of the oil rig at the center of the world man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history (and perhaps the world): The Gulf Oil Spill. The full costs of the spill exceeds $45 billion by all accounts, and BP Oil is shelling out more than $50 billion in compensation, fines, and reparations as a consequence of the blow out.
Everyone knows what happened. Where’s the suspense? How can this be built into the story?
The film was marketed as a heroic action film, showing how ordinary men and women responded to an unthinkable event (even though they technically had trained for one). This is all fine and good, except that the filmmakers, like most storytellers, want their audiences to be fully vested in the characters—we had to care about them, really care about them, to want to know how they get out of this mess. So, we (the audience) needed backstory.
Some films will accomplish this through flash backs, or dreams, or memory tricks. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t use these techniques. The story (by Matthew Sand with screenplay help from Matthew Michael Carnahan) starts with the protagonist, rig technology guru Mike Williams, waking up in bed with his wife the morning he is heading out to the rig for a long assignment.
Boring. Most people in a relationship get up with their partner or spouse every day. And many, military people in particular, see their partners and spouses deploy for months and years at a time. Nothing extraordinary here. Some reviewers have dismissed this scene as an “obligatory” nod to family and traditional values. But I think this is much more significant and critical to the story.
Conflict drives stories, and these small personal conflicts—the husband going to work, not seeing his kids, etc.—are very minor in the greater scheme of things, particularly in the context of the world oil spill in history. A cardinal rule of writing is that the “inciting incident“—the event that drives the plot and arcs of the main characters—must begin early in order to catch the attention of readers and viewers. They don’t have to finish the arc, but characters must start down the road to transformation to keep the story fresh. And conflict drives the actions of the characters and builds tension in the plot.
Sand and Carnahan do something clever. They write in the 10-year old daughter, Sydney, who is giving a presentation on her dad’s job (played by Mark Walhberg) to her elementary school class. She describes (beginning at minute 9 in the collection of trailers emedded below) how, way back in time, dinosaurs roamed the earth. When they died, the dinosaurs became big bad black monsters (oil) that were trying to escape. When humans drill for oil, the monsters try to escape (the oil gush). Her Dad’s job is to put a lid on the hole that keeps the monsters in the hole, using honey to illustrate how mud is used to block the hole.
During the entire presentation, the daughter is showing what happens by first taking an opened soda can representing the oil reserves that will be tapped, driving a hole in the top using one of her father’s tools to represent the men drilling for oil, and then containing the oil by putting honey down a brass pipe fitting (the oil pipe) until it stops seeping from the can. Everyone is happy, proud of the daughter for coming up with such a simple, clever way to explain a very complicated job to her kids who, like most adults, know little, if anything, about oil drilling and its dangers. Then a chemical reaction leads to the soda exploding from the can—the “blow out”. The family runs from the spraying soda, showing they are powerless to stop it. Since it’s just a soda can, it’s all fun and games.
However, what Sand and Carnahan have done is use foreshadowing to bring the inciting incident into the earliest scenes while providing backstory that shows a close, respectful loving family at breakfast. Now, however, with our advance knowledge and the privilege of knowing the ultimate end—tragic blow out—we know that this family will be threatened, perhaps even torn apart or destroyed. We just don’t know how. We are invested in the main character. This is not an obligatory scene pandering to audience sensibilities; it’s critical to the story’s development and engaging the viewer.
Most of the reviews have focused on how the technical language of oil drilling is handled in the action sequences. Most people will not be able to follow the language, but it’s not necessary. Indeed, when I saw this scene, I realized that an important part of the sequence was to explain to the audience just how the blow out was supposed to be handled. The scene, and the daughter’s explanation, visually and orally explained the basic principles behind drilling and the tactics used to prevent a blow out.
But the scene also accomplishes something much more. It brings the inciting incident upfront in the film, into the opening minutes of the story. Now the audience is focused on whether Mike Williams—the father, the oil rig operator—will survive, whether he will make the right decisions, and, if he survives, how he perseveres through a tragedy that killed eleven men, injured scores of others, devastated an entire region of the Gulf of Mexico, and fundamentally changed the way deep water oil exploration is managed and regulation.
This is one reason why I believe Deepwater Horizon is one of the best films of 2016, and another reason writer’s can learn a lot from successful films and screenwriters.