Who Gets the Focus in Real-Life Disaster Movies?

'Deepwater Horizon' and how some movies based on real-life tragedies marginalize their characters while others accurately portray what happened.

This weekend, Mark Wahlberg suits up as a blue collar worker fighting to stay alive after an explosion rocks the deep sea oil rig he’s on. It could have been fiction, but it’s real life. Well, it’s based on real life, anyway.

Director Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon dramatizes the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill which took the lives of nearly a dozen crew members and sent millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. Deepwater Horizon belongs to an already stuffed category of larger-than-life dramas based on real-life acts of heroism which occur during natural disasters.

Movies like Deepwater, and the recent hit Sully, have steadily made their way to the big-screen by highlighting the plight of the every man hero. At least, that’s the conceit; when the protagonist for a story like this is chosen, that process is usually a little more complicated.

If it’s a real-life tragedy being depicted in a movie, more often than not, the protagonist is non-minority and there are a wide range of social classes who may or may not get marginalized. Chaos is the great equalizer as long as you’re white. Let’s take a look at who gets to endure the types of real-life tragedies that make it on-screen.

Fancy Folks


James Cameron’s former king of the box office is and probably always will be the most prestigious disaster movie of all time. There have been many imitators, but Titanic defined the modern disaster movie in many ways. Mostly, it succeeded in framing the famously unsinkable ship’s disaster around a romanticized view of what it would be like to actually survive the sinking of an impossibly gigantic steamship.

Rich person Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) breaks free from the stifling upper class by slumming it with Leonardo DiCaprio’s lovable scamp, Jack Dawson, and their love is stronger because of it … even though Jack dies in the process. Cameron boiled the story down to its essence while staying as big as possible, and that’s why it succeeded.

The Impossible

Director J.A. Bayona’s 2012 film The Impossible is a rousing and scarily effective disaster flick based on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. But its focus was probably a little bit too short-sighted.

There were million of Thai people trying to escape the actual devastation depicted in the film, and yet all we really see is a doctor played by Ewan McGregor; his wife, played by Naomi Watts; and his family having their vacation ruined. There could be something said about the theme of shared trauma bringing a community of survivors together through their experience, but there’s no mistaking the privileged whitewashing going on here.

Extraordinary People at Work

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone’s 2006 movie about 9/11 managed to honor the collective bravery of those caught in a life-changing moment of chaos.

It’s the primary reason why these middle-tiered, real-life disaster movies are the most cinematically effective — all the narrative faults fall away and the audacious realization that what you’re watching actually happened takes over.

The Grunts

The Perfect Storm

The little people can overcome crazy adversity as well, especially if you’re George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and a bunch of other actors doing over-the-top Massachusetts accents as Gloucester fisherman caught in the middle of the so-called “perfect storm” of 1991. Wolfgang Peterson’s movie has the hardship factor like the other middle-tier disaster movies, but the blue collar nature of its characters (who are, again, nearly entirely white) is what fundamentally endears the audience to their little weather mishap.


With 2010’s Unstoppable we have the most balls-to-the-wall — and overly exaggerated — version of the blue collar hero attempting to confront the incredible. Based on the CSX 8888 incident of a runaway freight train that barreled through Ohio with a cargo of hazardous chemicals before finally being halted after over two hours of uncontrolled terror, it doesn’t get much better than that for a movie premise based on real life. Throw in Denzel Washington as the lead and you’ve got yourself one of those more diverse disaster movies of the whole group.

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