Kosher Movies: Deepwater Horizon

One valuable lesson I tried to teach my kids was not to make important decisions in life based on money. Follow your conscience, not the money. At the end of the day, our Sages tell us, you take only your good deeds to the Next World, not money or physical possessions. Deepwater Horizon tells the story of what transpired when the corporate management of BP, on oil company, chose profit over prudence, which led to the largest oil spill in US history and the loss of eleven men.

The film opens as Mike Williams, Chief Electrical Engineer, says goodbye to his wife, Felicia, and daughter, Sydney, before leaving for a three-week stint on the offshore oil rig well known as Deepwater Horizon. He is joined by Andrea Fleytas, another worker, and Jimmy Harrell, the general operational supervisor.

Jimmy, a seasoned veteran of oil-rig operations and a highly safety-conscious administrator, is concerned that the previous team on the rig has not done a cement log, which evaluates the stability of the platform. He argues with the BP management, insisting on another test to determine the safety of the rig. Although the management wants to move on with their project because every delay has heavy financial consequences, Jimmy resists the pressure and still wants to do another test. The results are unsettling.

The BP execs, Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, convince Jimmy to run a different test to evaluate the stability of the rig. Their test suggests safe outcomes if the rig, which already is close to fifty days behind schedule, continues to operate. When the result of the second test is favorable to management, Jimmy reluctantly agrees to continue operation. Mike, however, is worried because he feels management is hopeful of a good outcome; but, as he tells Vidrine,“hope is not a tactic” for success.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s concern about the platform’s instability proves correct and there is a massive explosion killing several men. Mike, together with another technician, works feverishly to save his co-workers. The Coast Guard soon comes to the rescue but not everyone is saved. The film’s coda states what happened to the principal players in the story, and then informs us of the results of the court inquiry into what caused the tragedy. Although the BP execs were indicted for manslaughter, settlements made to victims enabled the BP executives to avoid prison. Money trumps all.

Jewish tradition is filled with pithy sayings about the accumulation of riches and the obsessive concern for wealth. Most of these statements do not frown upon wealth itself, but they are cautionary comments indicating that the possession of wealth does not lead to happiness.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, authored by the wise King Solomon, tells us: “One who loves money will never be satisfied with money.” Rabbi Gil Student observes: “Greed is futile. It is a goal with no end.” Moreover, the Talmud suggests that the more we rely on wealth, the less we rely on God. The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, reminds us that the truly wealthy person is the one who is happy with what he has (Avot 4:1). Furthermore, the Sages write that with more riches comes more anxiety, more worry (Avot 2:7).

The BP executives do not live by these Biblical and Talmudic maxims. They view the world in economic terms. They see BP bringing profit and work to thousands of people and they minimize the danger to its employees, who risk their lives for the company. The opportunity for profit, regardless of the human cost, becomes their driving motivation. It prevents them from seeing the big picture, from recognizing the complexity behind the decision-making process. Deepwater Horizon reminds us of the terrible consequences of making profit more important than people.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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