The Great Invisible opens with home videos taken by Doug Brown, chief engineer of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform, providing intimate glimpses of what he terms a “secret world.” Yet while the documentary pays proper homage to him and other workers, those who both lived and died aboard the rig when it exploded in April 2010, director Margaret Brown casts a considerably wider net to explore the full breadth of the societal repercussions of the explosion after 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Enormously even-handed, the film effectively demonstrates how the systemic cause of the catastrophe was tied as much to society’s staggering dependence on fossil fuels as to the petroleum industry’s devotion to greed.
Brown guides us through the economic fallout of the entire region, underscored by the oyster shuckers and shrimp fishermen of Bayou la Batre, Alabama struggling with the ruin of the water they mine. She then transitions to the story of Latham Smith, a tugboat captain whose contracted work for various rigs has petered out due to the moratorium on drilling in the disaster’s immediate aftermath. One sharply observed sequence finds Smith holding court at a dinner table, declaring “the idea that civilization can last three hours without oil is ridiculous,” while he and his friends dine on seafood, a quiet illustration of how each industry is tied up in the other.
Although The Great Invisible makes clear that lax safety regulations under the stewardship of BP and its brethren prompted the accident, it paints them as one problematic part of a complicated mosaic rather than chief villains. The government grills these companies on Capitol Hill regarding their neglect and President Obama denounces oil drilling for its pervasiveness, yet the spill results in no authentic action, and the film explicitly advises no comprehensive energy plan is in place for the future. Repeated shots of cars and SUVs on the freeway charge us as being accomplices to the proliferation of carbon emissions, guilty of being addicted to gas, which is the same accusation made by a gaggle of bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking oil and gas executives that Brown returns to throughout the film. The members of this big-business Greek chorus cite solar power as the future, even if their smarm makes clear they know where their bread is buttered, in no hurry to spur change.
Our failure to break free of Big Oil’s hold is delicately tied back to the moving plight of Doug Brown. Open about the guilt he feels for where he worked and what he did, he boxes up his Transocean and BP-related personal effects and stows them in the garage. Yet he inevitably hauls them back out anyway, and it’s heartbreakingly revealed that among these items is where he considered committing suicide. And when it’s suggested to his wife that they could simply be thrown away, she sadly counters: “Somehow Doug feels that this stuff defines him.” That which defined him also caused irreparable damage—an idea, the film reckons, that encapsulates modern America’s relationship to oil.