The hot lowlands sprawling around where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico seem both disaster-prone and fated to be ignored when it comes time for clean-up. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, 11 workers were killed and millions of gallons of oil dumped into the gulf. It was the biggest oil spill in American history. That was horrific enough. But then came the investigations, the lawyers, and the intransigent power of a massive industry apparently powerful enough to devastate an entire coastal economy and yet still convince people that punishing it would only hurt themselves. Margaret Brown’s plaintive documentary The Great Invisible strongly suggests that the Deepwater explosion was the second part of a one-two punch that smashed into the coast after Katrina. The landscape it left behind was even more devastated than before.
Brown tags along behind a number of people trying to put things right in the weeks, months, and years following those long weeks before the spout of ecosystem-destroying oil gushing from Deepwater’s well was finally capped. She has a warm, empathetic touch, and it produces some riveting footage. Among the more fascinating characters is Roosevelt, a twinkly fellow who does the most basically necessary sort of charity: bringing food to people who can’t afford much of anything. Following Roosevelt in his sturdy truck, the film tracks a coastline of people who had been clearly already living in desperate poverty before the oil spill. Afterwards, with the oystering and shrimping industries decimated and restrictions placed on deep-water drilling, the one support system for an already-marginalized population was knocked to pieces. A particularly Southern fatalism hangs over many of the interviewees, along with a belief that people elsewhere don’t quite care what goes on down there.
When digging into the reasons behind the explosion itself, the film’s fatalism takes a more suspicious turn. Brown’s entry point to this part of the disaster is Kent Jones, whose son Gordon died on the rig. Brown makes generous and evocative use of Gordon’s home-movie footage of life aboard the rig. Jones and just about everybody else Brown talks to pushes a simple and hard-to-refute narrative: Transocean, which operated the Deepwater on behalf of British Petroleum, had systemically slashed safety procedures and manpower to the bone in the weeks before the explosion. Even though the film never closes the loop on this part of the story by producing the smoking gun, its narrative of profit-hungry neglect is hard to shake.
Just as the Gulf swallowed up unseen most of the 176 million gallons of oil that the Deepwater explosion blasted out over nearly three months, the $20 billion compensation fund set up afterward by BP looks in the film to barely scratch the surface of correcting the problem. Ken Feinberg, the brash-talking lawyer overseeing the fund’s payouts, appears genuinely concerned for the locals’ plight but a bit overwhelmed by the scale of what he faces. If the chuckling certainty of the clutch of cigar-smoking oil traders and wildcatters whom Brown listens in on is anything to go by, little will change. They reiterate with cynical certainty that oil is what powers America, dismissing renewable energy sources as a fanciful distraction. The implication they leave is that for the foreseeable future the people of the Gulf will keep eking out a meager living from polluted waters in the shadow of refineries that may as well be alien spacecraft.
That fascinating segment is one of the few moments when Brown’s film really digs into the subject. She generally leaves substantive material to on-screen titles (like one pointed note about how oil production generates more revenue for the U.S. government than anything except taxes). Her subjects are generally there to talk about the human impact of the crisis. As important as that material is, it leaves the film somewhat unmoored and searching for its story. In part, that seems to be Brown’s intent. Like with 2008’s The Order of Myths, her evocatively sprawling essay about Mardi Gras, she is aiming less to create a narrative of the tragedy itself than she is painting a portrait of a place, a people, and a state of mind. As such, The Great Invisible occasionally touches on gripping material but leaves too much of the story unsaid.