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Gulf oil disaster film: The last word belongs to …?

The invisible in Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible (available on Netflix and online on PBS’s Independent Lens until May 21) refers to both the damage done to the lives and landscape of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the largest in U.S. history), and the free pass awarded to BP in the years after the disaster. Sure, they paid billions of dollars in fines and fees to clean up the spill, but the amount will add up to a drop in their endless bucket of oil profits.

The company continues to drill new offshore wells, hidden from view and unscathed by government regulations, while the devastation from the accident resulted in both a human and environmental post-traumatic stress that neither BP, the United States government, the media, nor the rest of us care to think about. Out of sight, out of mind.

The 2010 Deepwater explosion killed 11 workers and leaked 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. It ruined the coastline, killed countless birds, fish and other sea life, and put thousands of people out of work. Brown spends considerable time recounting the explosion and the leaking underwater well. She takes us inside the huge drilling rig, thanks to home movie footage shot by one of the surviving workers, and parallels the unfolding disaster with the story of oil rig survivors, relatives of the dead and the fishermen and families directly affected by the spill.

Roosevelt Harris, a volunteer at an Alabama church soup kitchen, is one central character. He comes across as a post-apocalyptic Good Samaritan, roaming the muddy backroads delivering food and supplies, resolved to make the best of this new world created in the aftermath of the crisis, but unable to hide an air of defeated resignation. Sometimes, The Great Invisible feels defeated as well. Brown is a rigorous and intelligent filmmaker (and a native of Alabama). Her film is patient, objective, respectful and measured. But it fails to ignite. In tackling a story that is as much about big oil as it is about the little people left behind, she seems resigned to pessimism. She neither challenges the oil company nor asks her other characters, such as the out-of-work shrimpers hired by BP to help cleanup the spill or the locals who work onshore for the company, to explain why they continue to support an industry that ruins their lives.

In one scene, a local man is giving a tour of a massive oil rig to a group of school kids. When he asks if they know where oil comes from and one of them answers that it’s a fossil fuel, he quickly corrects her, saying, “That’s just a theory.” Is the man just stupid or is he a shill for big oil? Brown makes a point by leaving the statement alone, but in the face of such a horrendous corporate-caused human and ecological catastrophe, perhaps a follow-up question would not have been out of line. In her efforts to maintain a respectful distance, this episode and others like it, cast a hopeless gloom over the entire picture.

Not that we need to feel unrealistically upbeat. The future of the planet is in dire straits if we don’t immediately stop emitting carbon and keep the rest of it in the ground. But The Great Invisible doesn’t tackle these pressing issues. Instead of inciting rage or protest, or even simply interrogating a population duped into participating in their own demise, the movie, in its last scene, allows the oil companies to — literally — have the last word.

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