THE GREAT INVISIBLE: Margaret Brown Examines American Oil Dependence in the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster
Kate Lawrie Van de Ven
The Deepwater Horizon, a cutting-edge oil rig leased to BP, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, killing 11 crewmen. When the rig sank two days later, it released the largest offshore oil spill in American history, lasting 87 days and gushing hundreds of millions of gallons into the Gulf. Beyond the immediate loss of life, the disaster’s effects have been enormous both in terms of the impacted ecosystems and fisheries, and of the alarming lack of change it inspired: despite initial gestures, the American government failed to pass any new safety regulations and a temporary offshore drilling ban has long-since been lifted.
Director Margaret Brown has directed three beautifully nuanced documentary features that each explore haunting paradoxes within the American psyche. Her debut, Be Here to Love Me, lyrically eulogized troubled Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt; her second feature, The Order of Myths, examined the shocking contradictions at play in Mobile, Alabama’s racially segregated Mardi Gras celebrations. With The Great Invisible, a soulful, multilayered investigation into the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Brown considers the American way of life at large. She charts the spill’s effects on the Gulf coastline and its economies, the fall-out for survivors and their families, and the futility of trying to hold anyone accountable without addressing the larger issue: that the country as a whole remains endlessly dependent upon oil.
Brown is too thoughtful a filmmaker to ignore the inherent contradictions in anyone’s outrage (even her own) at the spill and she contemplates how deeply embedded oil production and consumption is in American life, and in Southern culture in particular. She deftly avoids the editorializing of a traditional narrator, allowing the voices of participants to breathe perse textures and opinions into the works. The interviewees include two rig employees who survived the disaster (Doug Brown and Stephen Stone), the father of victim Gordon Jones, tugboat captain Latham Smith, poverty-relief crusader Roosevelt Harris (who distributes food to those left out of work and tries to mobilize them to speak with a legal representative), Houston oilmen, Bayou La Batre oyster-shuckers, and even Kenneth Feinberg, “the 20 billion dollar man” appointed to administer BP’s fund for reparations. In a moment of jaw-dropping tactlessness, the latter cajoles attendees at a compensation meeting to file claims — rather than sue — by saying “take the money, it’s a gift…..” The film is punctuated with similarly surreal moments: sunbathers enjoy a beach while hazmat-booted crew clean sludge off the sand; elsewhere an offshore oil historian tells a school group that oil “comes from God.” The result is a damning but surprisingly humanistic look at a massive disaster that seems somehow small in the shadow of the broader cultural phenomena at play.
Throughout the film, a map graphic situates the spill site in relation to various communities along the Gulf. In the map’s final appearance, the red dot showing the former location of the Deepwater Horizon is joined by a rash of other dots pinpointing the roughly 3,500 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf. In this moment, the various invisibles considered in the film are synthesized in an image of the vast landscape of extraction that looms off the coast, powering the nation’s unquenched demand for profit and convenience but threatening to repeat the Deepwater Horizon disaster hundreds of times over. As Latham Smith opines in the film, “the idea that civilization can last three hours without oil is ridiculous at this stage” but The Great Invisible makes clear that continuing to pursue it at such a high cost is far more absurd.