SXSW Film Review – The Great Invisible

The Great Invisible

The Great Invisible

While meaning well in trying to get justice for those who suffered from the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, The Great Invisible has several different ideas it wants to get across and has trouble fitting them all in. A great documentary can succeed in many ways by giving us intriguing people or situations and letting these people inform us in their own words and actions. There are also talking heads, where we hear from a variety of experts, getting to the heart of a complex matter and making it clear for those of us who otherwise would have trouble following it. Or just having a central figure take us through an issue or situation, so we can see the reactions that come from it. Here, there is a little bit of everything and this becomes problematic.

In looking into the spill and its aftereffects, we move from those who were on the oil well when it exploded, to residents of the Gulf of Mexico that were affected by the spill—mainly through the travels of a man who is helping out by giving out food—to some oil industry people sitting around talking about how they see the energy future and how addicted we all are to cheap fuel. These are all people who should be able to give us insight into many aspects of the spill, but the results are mixed.

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When talking with a man who helps out those who work in the Gulf, the sense of who these people are and what happened to them is muted, in that we do not know much about them. He mentions that people are too afraid or set in their ways to make an effort to fight back. Yet we are never shown how or why this is. There is also reference to people who just want the deep water drilling to continue regardless of the problems, because it affects their livelihood, but this is just mentioned and we hear nothing else on the issue.

When we cut to the workers we hear about some of the culture of the oil drilling business and the people who get involved in that work, which gave a great sense of the kind of people who are interested in work but not anything more about them as individuals. When we hear about some of the mental and physical anguish that the workers of Deepwater are experiencing, it is near the end of the film, and that emotion is muted so that I had little sense of who these people were before and after the accident, which left me uninvolved, despite their obvious physical and emotional pain.

The oil industry people who appeared not to know they were being taped as they just sat around eating dinner made some intriguing comments. The way they justified what they are doing in the interest of what the market wants and how hard they work, and how the United States’ thirst for oil makes us just as guilty, was an intriguing way to really get into how those who make money in oil think, and make some legitimate points about our energy issues. This was by far the most interesting part, because it made for a viewpoint that is usually unheard. Yet it left me wanting more: more insight, more of how they see themselves and what they think is the answer to energy problems. It raised questions that the film did not give answers to or give a way to explore further.

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The lack of connection to the subjects would have been fine, but when it came to the situations presented, I didn’t feel like I learned much. That the oil industry is still profiting and that little is being done to slow them down isn’t a major revelation. The oil workers talk about some of the problems that the well was having before the explosion, the cutting corners, but we are never given any major details to inform us to what exactly went wrong. We are told that BP isn’t getting the claims out to the people they said they were going to, and some general reasons about some not having the right paperwork, but no wider sense of the problem. That the oil industry is ill prepared to deal with another spill and is still expanding the drilling operations is news to an extent, but was not surprising. These are broad facts that are unlikely to shock anyone and the filmmakers inform us of this without getting into the why or how and it felt like simple rhetoric.

There were some things that were of interest, like the oil rig culture and seeing into the heart of what oilmen think, but too many ideas and jumping around from group to group left things scattered and unfocused. I do not doubt the passion that director Margaret Brown has for the people suffering in the Gulf, and she is justified in her anger over how little the oil industry is doing to change its ways or even clean up the messes it has already made. But in creating a film about these issues, the inherent anger that we all have does not alone make the narrative presented, interesting.




Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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