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Living With the Aftermath of the BP Oil Spill

In Review: The Great Invisible (Documentary)

During a congressional hearing with oil industry honchos following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson made a startling — and hair-raising — candid admission: “When these things happen we are not well equipped to handle them… There will be impacts.”

These “impacts” (one of the most Orwellian euphemisms since the Pentagon came up with “collateral damage”) include the spilling of an estimated 176 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico for 57 days after the April 20, 2010 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-drilling rig operated by BP that killed 11 crewmen and devastated the Gulf’s ecosystem. While many of the aftereffects of the epic, apocalyptic blowout may be invisible to the naked eye, the fireball it caused was visible from 35 miles away.

smoke plumes in the water during the Deepwater Horizon disasterPhoto courtesy of RADiUS-TWC The Great Invisible reveals how the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has affected the lives of rig workers, oystermen, fishermen and shrimpers of Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi.

Using artfully intercut news clips, archival footage, amateur video, and original interviews, award-winning filmmaker Margaret Brown — who is originally from the Gulf Coast — weaves a terrifying tapestry in The Great Invisible, which reveals how the catastrophe has affected the lives of rig workers, oystermen, fishermen and shrimpers of Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi. The film also details the petroleum industry’s response (or lack of) to the calamity and its aftermath. The Great Invisible’s executive producers are Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann of Participant Media, who also produced An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 climate change documentary featuring Al Gore that scored Academy Awards, a Grammy and the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 92-minute documentary’s most harrowing on camera interviews are with survivors of the big blast — roustabout Stephen Stone, who reportedly suffers from PTSD, and the rig’s chief engineer Douglas Harold Brown, who had accompanied the ship to the Gulf from South Korea, where it was built in 2001.

Regretting that he was a loyal cog in the oil industry’s wheel for so long, Brown — who attempted to commit suicide following the debacle — admits “I feel guilty because I played along.” While Stone — who has been deeply traumatized by the blast and subsequent shabby treatment by the industry -- testifies  before Congress, even though he is heavily medicated and heavily drinking. Stone reveals that he stabs his own arm with scissors to “see if I feel.” At one point in the film, the camera peruses Stone’s bookshelf, which includes books by atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and intriguingly his favorite novel, Somerset Maugham’s classic The Razor’s Edge, about a shell-shocked World War I veteran’s spiritual quest for meaning.

Doug BrownPhoto courtesy of RADiUS-TWC Douglas Harold Brown, the Deepwater Horizon rig's chief engineer at the time of the accident
regrets being a loyal cog in the oil industry’s wheel.

Crewmen’s family members also go on the record. Stone’s wife displays a series of portraits she painted of subjects wearing sad, haunted expressions. Attorney Keith Jones, whose son Gordon Jones died in the blast, speaks on behalf of those who no longer can.

We also see the toll the cataclysmic event has wrought on everyday people in the Gulf, especially through the eyes of Roosevelt Harris, who runs the truck ministry for the Hemley Church Mobile Food Pantry at Bayou La Batre, Alabama. From a historical perspective it’s interesting to observe an African American man providing relief and care for impoverished white Southerners, among others. As Harris puts it in his folksy, yet eloquent way: “These people out here depend on the Bay out there for their living... Katrina just wiped the houses away and blowed in about 27 feet of water, hear? But the oil spill really put a damper on everything.”

The spill, however, didn’t necessarily put a damper on the rapacious oil industry, which the film depicts as duplicitous, stonewalling settlements, and not offering fair settlements to those whom it has afflicted, while at the same time overspending on TV ads which paint a hunky-dory picture (in contrast to Sara Stone’s sorrowful portraits) of the so-called recovery.

If the employees and Gulf people are portrayed as all-too-human, the same can’t be said of the oil executives who testify before Congress and a group of ham-handed, stogie chomping hot shots the filmmaker seems to have encountered at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston. They come across like the stereotypical fat cats depicted in a Depression-era Frank Capra populist movie.

None of the petro-capitalists agreed to be interviewed per se by Brown, but to his credit, attorney Kenneth Feinberg — who administered the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund, and previously served as Special Master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — does appear onscreen. Some may see Feinberg as a straight shooter, while others may consider him to be a shyster doing the bidding of a greedy industry.

oil execs at an informal meetingPhoto courtesy of RADiUS-TWC If the employees and Gulf people are portrayed as all-too-human, the same can’t be said
of the oil executives.

Towards the end of the documentary a title informs viewers that in the wake of the largest offshore oil spill in US history, “Congress has not passed any new safety legislation for the petroleum industry.” It is a story reminiscent of a shameless Wall Street, where not a single bankster who caused the financial collapse of capitalism circa 2008 went to jail and serious reforms were not imposed to control the perpetrators. In a clip Barack Obama, who has yet to rule on the Keystone Pipeline, declares: “We have more oil rigs now than ever. That’s a fact. We have more pipelines. Don’t tell me we’re not drilling. We’re drilling all over this country.”

As The Great Invisible inexorably moves towards its conclusion, it shows how, like the post-financial meltdown Wall Street, the shameless fossil fuel industry is unrestrained and resurgent. A talking head laments that, “oil concessions belong to the government. Our government is encouraging oil companies.” The camera takes viewers to an oil lease sale presided over by the Department of Interior, offering up 39 million acres in the central — you guessed it — Gulf of Mexico. One lease transaction is enacted for $27 million. According to the film, $1.7 billion was raised from 56 energy companies   through the Central Gulf oil lease sales — with an unrepentant BP spending $239.5 million on 43 leases.

The film notes that “a moment in time to think about the way of burning hydrofluorocarbons in this country” has been lost. As the lens zooms in on the Interior Department’s seal, which portentously bears the image of a buffalo, a creature nearly wiped out from this country by ecocide, the overlying text informs: “Second only to taxes offshore oil generates the most revenue for the U.S. Treasury.”

The documentary closes with vehicles guzzling gas as another title proclaims that while America has 4.45 percent of the world’s population it “consumes 37 percent of the world’s petroleum”, and grouses that the US government still has no sustainable energy policy. Meanwhile, the Deepwater Horizon crewmen Brown and Stone languish — like so many others in the Gulf, awaiting their settlements from BP. All this calls to mind the classic Pete Seeger song, The Big Muddy:

“We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That’s how it all begun.
We were — knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.”

Like Nailah Jefferson’s Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe à la Hache, which was released earlier this year, The Great Invisible is another hard hitting documentary that chronicles one of the worst environmental tragedies in American history and its equally catastrophic aftermath. Along with Laura Poitras’ anti-surveillance, Edward Snowden film Citizenfour — which is also being brought to viewers by The Weinstein Company — The Great Invisible is a strong contender in the Oscar race for Best Documentary.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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