The New York Times - October 28, 2014
By Stephen Holden
“The Great Invisible,” Margaret Brown’s quietly infuriating documentary film about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, includes depressing information that many would probably be happier not knowing.
Since the catastrophe, which began with an oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and led to a discharge of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the company that operated the rig, BP, has cleaned up less than one-third of the spill, according to the film. More than four years later, Congress has yet to pass any safety legislation for the petroleum industry. Of the multibillion-dollar profits made by BP over a recent three-year period, the film says, less than a tenth of 1 percent was spent on safety. After a brief moratorium on offshore drilling, the ban was lifted, and there are now more rigs in the Gulf of Mexico than before the disaster.
The film, for which BP executives declined to be interviewed, is not a thunderous, finger-pointing exposé of corporate greed and mismanagement. Nor is it a dry, fact-filled history of the disaster or an analysis of the technology of oil drilling. The 92-minute movie also leaves it for others to explore the spill’s ecological and environmental impact. There are a few obligatory images of sea birds coated with oil and aerial shots of oil slicks destined for the Gulf Coast.
The principal focus is on the everyday people whose lives were disrupted. A similar emphasis on human beings informed Ms. Brown’s acclaimed 2008 documentary, “The Order of Myths,” an exploration of Mardi Gras culture in Mobile, Ala.
The new film’s ground-level perspective includes interviews with several people who received minimal compensation from the $20 billion trust fund established to settle claims from the spill. The mistrustful attitude of these tough, independent workers near the bottom of the economic ladder toward those near the top is the underlying theme here. The glaring contrast between grim oyster shuckers and idled fishermen and Houston executives crowing about the fundamental importance of oil to the economy suggests a tragic disconnect between society’s haves and have-nots.
Caught in the middle are people like Douglas Harold Brown, the Deepwater Horizon’s chief mechanic, who was aboard the rig when the explosion took place. Mr. Brown delivers a moment-by-moment account of the disaster, while the screen shows the inferno of billowing smoke and flames. Mr. Brown details how he and the workers on the rig were pressured to eliminate jobs to save money. “Everybody knew” the dangers, he says. “It makes me feel guilty, because I played along. I knew what I was doing was wrong.” He links that failure to a macho culture in the oil business that glorifies risk-taking.
One of the most revealing scenes shows the chief executives of top oil companies answering questions before Congress and sounding like guilty, overgrown boys facing a grade school principal after being caught cheating. In another scene, a smug industry honcho gloatingly surmises that the American thirst for oil is so enormous that if the supply were cut off, the economy would collapse within hours.
The film’s portrayal of the trust fund, administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, suggests that money was mismanaged and cut off prematurely. Many who were promised restitution received one or two small checks, then nothing. Mr. Feinberg, who comes across as highhanded and grandiose, acknowledges that he “overpromised” prompt delivery of relief.
Amid the cynicism, evasion and denial, a local hero stands out. Roosevelt Harris, a volunteer at a food pantry in Bayou La Batre, billed as Alabama’s seafood capital, advises the embittered and despairing workers who lost their jobs and homes to file claims. Such is their lack of faith in the system that they would rather not bother.