How much of Deepwater Horizon is a true story? Breaking down Fact vs Fiction in the film

Deepwater Horizon disaster film (Image via Max)
Deepwater Horizon disaster film (Image via Max)

The Mark Wahlberg-led 2016 disaster film Deepwater Horizon was mostly an accurate depiction of the true story of the April 2010 oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which ignited a massive fireball that killed several crew members and resulted in the "worst oil disaster in US history."

The action-packed film, directed by Peter Berg, hinges on the survivors' account and the "Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours" article in the New York Times. It chronicles the lead-up to and subsequent explosion of the titular drilling rig just off the coast of Louisiana, paying homage to the lost lives during the disaster. It has taken painstaking care to represent the true dangers of offshore drilling.

But as with any historical biopic, some dramatic licenses were taken, and the film has also left out a critical part of the aftermath of the incident, like the gas company BP being forced to pay several billions for damages.

Deepwater Horizon: Exploring the key differences between true story and their depiction in the film

1) Mike Williams was really on a call with his wife

Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams in Deepwater Horizon (Image via Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)
Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams in Deepwater Horizon (Image via Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

Deepwater Horizon has taken a truthful depiction of the real-life people working in the oil rig, at least for the most part. Shortly before the explosion happened in the movie, Mike Williams (played by Mark Wahlberg), who was the rig's Chief Electronics Technician, was on a call with his wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson). It was during the call that he heard the alarms, and his wife, who was on a video call, saw the room get brighter.

It is nearly the same as what happened in real life, according to Williams' testimony while recounting his experiences during the incident. He was speaking with his wife shortly before the explosion, although he was already off the call when he heard the alarms. His lights and computer monitor exploded shortly after, and the rig was engulfed in total darkness.

2) Mike Williams did jump several stories into the Gulf of Mexico

In one of the critical sequences in Deepwater Horizon, Mike Williams had to jump from an incredible height to escape the burning rig, and he did so in real life. The Chief Electronics Technician jumped about ten stories into the Gulf of Mexico.

But unlike in the movie, where Williams was seen helping some of the crew jump from the exploding rig, in actuality, Williams was the only one who had to jump into the water in order to escape the flames.

He recalled what he was thinking at the time during a 2018 interview with Scott Pelley for 60 Minutes, saying:

"I remember closing my eyes and saying a prayer, asking God to tell my wife and little girl that daddy did everything he could, and if I survive this, it's for a reason. I made those three steps, and I pushed off the end of the rig. And I fell for what seemed like forever."

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Once he was in the water, Williams described having to scramble and try to get away from the burning oil that surrounded him. He noted:

"I feel this God-awful burning all over me, and I'm thinking, 'Am I on fire?'"

As depicted in the Deepwater Horizon, Williams was badly injured from the blowup before eventually getting hoisted into a boat to safety.

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3) 11 workers died from the explosion on the oil rig

One of the specifics in the film's depiction is the characterization of the actual people in the true story of the oil rig explosion. For instance, Caleb Calloway, who is one of the survivors of the incident, was played by Maze Runner star Dylan O'Brien.

Additionally, each of the 11 men who were caught in the initial explosion and died when the rig was engulfed in flames is depicted in Deepwater Horizon. While not all of them have major parts in the movie, everyone is cast, including:

  • Jason Kirkpatrick as Aaron Dale Burkeen
  • Garrett Kruithof as Karl Kleppinger Jr.
  • JD Evermore as Dewey Revette
  • Ronald Weaver as Donald Clark
  • Jonathan Angel as Gordon Jones
  • Jason Pine as Stephen Ray Curtis
  • Terry Milam as Keith Blair Manuel
  • Henry Frost as Shane Roshto
  • Michael Howell as Roy Wyatt Kemp
  • Jeremy Sande as Adam Weise
  • Ethan Suplee as Jason Anderson

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4) Andrea Fleytas did have the authority to activate the emergency alarms

After the explosion in Deepwater Horizon, everyone was in a race to escape the platform before they got trapped in the flames. One scene that was mostly for cinematic effect was Andrea Fleytas (played by Gina Rodriguez), the oil rig's Dynamic Position Operator, having to fight to sound the warning alarm that would notify the rest of the crew about the impending danger.

Gina Rodriguez was Andrea Fleytas in Deepwater Horizon (Image via Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Gina Rodriguez was Andrea Fleytas in Deepwater Horizon (Image via Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

But in actuality, Fleytas did have the authority to activate the emergency alarms as soon as the control panel lit up. However, she admittedly wasn't able to do it immediately after getting shocked and overwhelmed at seeing all ten magenta lights on the panel lit up at once, indicating that the rig was facing the highest possible emergency.

5) BP managers weren't solely to blame for the explosion

BP managers Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine (played by Brad Leland and John Malkovich, respectively) were portrayed as the main antagonists in Deepwater Horizon. The film suggested that the pair worked on their own regarding the decision to hurry the oil rig workers through safety checkpoints, which later resulted in the blowout.

BP's night-side rig boss Vidrine, in particular, was villainized in Deepwater Horizon as he spends much of the movie complaining about the drilling operation over millions of dollars over budget and prodding the crew hasten so they can move on to their next drilling job.

John Malkovich is Donald Vidrine in Deepwater Horizon (Image via Jerod Harris/Getty Images)
John Malkovich is Donald Vidrine in Deepwater Horizon (Image via Jerod Harris/Getty Images)

In reality, while Vidrine misinterpreted the last test that would define the well's stability, he was confused with the conflicting pressure readings they were getting, which prompted him to call his superiors offsite to ask for second opinions.

Vidrine and Kaluza were prosecuted, but the charges were dismissed later on. In the end, in real life, BP received the brunt of the blame for the blowout as federal officials concluded that the company has created a culture where profit is prioritized over safety.

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6) The Deepwater Horizon explosion engulfed the entire rig in flames

One of the dramatic scenes of the movie was around the end, when the entire rig was engulfed in flames following the explosion. In real life, it was as dramatic as seen in Deepwater Horizon, with the methane gas explosion igniting the whole rig.

The NOAA office received a call about the fire in the oil rig around 1:24 am on Wednesday, April 21, 2010, and at about 9:30 am on April 22, the rig was still on fire. Around 10:30 that morning, the oil rig started to sink into the sea floor in around 5,000 feet of water, silt, and mud until the whole thing was barely visible.

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Like in the postscripts in the movie, all of this is true and not exaggerated:

"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 US history."

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7) Mike Williams wasn't really given a dinosaur tooth in real life

Another dramatic license the film has taken is the scene where Mike Williams brings with him home a dinosaur tooth around the end of the movie, which he shows to his wife and daughter. It didn't happen in real life and was simply inserted in Deepwater Horizon as an analogy, according to New York Times.

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8) BP being forced to pay for damages was left out of the film

Something critical about the real story of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 is the aftermath of BP's culpability in the incident, which was left out in the film. The company has been accused of putting profits over safety, resulting in the deaths of 11 crew members and a disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the end, BP was forced to pay a $20 billion Deepwater Horizon settlement for the environmental damage caused by their negligence and another $4 billion for criminal activity.

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Deepwater Horizon is available for streaming on Max with a subscription and for rent on Prime Video and Apple TV.

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