After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Great Invisible reveals what happened to the victims.

The Great Invisible
Latham Smith in The Great Invisible.

Film still courtesy RADiUS Films.

Here’s a simple narrative you’re probably familiar with:

Motivated by greed and speed, BP disregarded safety measures that could have prevented the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig. The rig exploded, killing 11 men and sending oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico—hundreds of millions of gallons over almost three months. Fisheries died. Hundreds of thousands of people who made their living from the Gulf’s waters have been frustrated in their efforts to obtain compensation for their losses, while BP glides along, largely unaffected by the tragedy it caused.

Margaret Brown’s observational new documentary, The Great Invisible, doesn’t directly question this received account. But the film, which just opened in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and several other cities, offers a much richer look at the causes and effects of the spill, trying to make visible what’s remained unseen. The oil itself, an eco-choking mass that still lies below the surface, is the most obvious of the “great invisibles”—the title might better have used the plural form. But Brown is more interested in exploring deeper meanings of concealment, and she has struck rich veins.

The invisibility of the Deepwater Horizon’s victims occupies much of Brown’s attention. She focuses on those who were on the rig when it exploded—the survivors and the dead—and the uncounted thousands whose gulf-dependent livelihoods were sundered by the unremitting oil. Soon after the spill, BP, under enormous public relations pressure, ponied up $20 billion for a fund to compensate the victims, and it named compensation fund guru Kenneth Feinberg as claims administrator.

Feinberg was already well-known for his efforts on behalf of victims of other disasters: the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, Agent Orange, and the Virginia Tech and Boston Marathon massacres, to name a few. He grandly declaims into the camera that he’d been brought in on this one “because of credibility.” But the Gulf case defeated him, and the fund was shut down in 2012. That’s when BP entered into a mass settlement of a civil lawsuit against the company—a settlement that may be paying some folks who weren’t even affected by the spill, while still leaving many deserving victims high and dry.

The Great Invisible goes a long way toward explaining why. Swooping in on a scattering of tents, shacks, and battered RVs in Alabama that make up the too-aptly named “Hard Luck City,” Brown chronicles the bleak lives of the families wrecked by the spill. Shrimpers, fishers, and oyster shuckers tell their stories of loss, and their pain is reflected through the eyes of Roosevelt Harris, a septuagenarian church volunteer who serves as the film’s moral center. Harris brings people food, compassion, and information about how and where to file their claims for economic loss. And then he and the claims attorney sit and wait for the victims to show up. No one does.

“I don’t know how you say this about the people down here but they’re kinda skeptical,” opines Harris. Some didn’t think the process would yield them any money for their loss; one oyster shucker said that her claims had been denied at least twice. According to Feinberg, many of the people who sought compensation didn’t have documentation to back up their claims. Told that “we do things with a handshake down here,” Feinberg could only say: “Big problem. Big problem.” (By comparison, the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund paid out an average of more than $1.2 million of government money per claimant. Feinberg’s 2012 book, Who Gets What, detail his experiences with these and other funds, and is a sober reflection on the different ways we compensate—or don’t—victims of mass disasters.)

Brown also spends some time with men who’d been working on the rig when it exploded. Stephen Stone, who survived the explosion and now suffers from PTSD, said his claim was denied twice because of issues relating to state taxes, even though there aren’t any in Texas. According to his lawyer, Brent Coon, as of July of this year Stone had yet to see a penny.

But it’s in the odd story of Doug Brown (no relation to the filmmaker) that the viewer comes to understand the depth of loss the surviving workers have suffered. After the explosion, Brown, who has needed several surgeries because of the accident, constructed a kind of perverse Deepwater Horizon museum in his home, filling it with equipment, clothing, and other paraphernalia that were the stuff of his everyday life, until they weren’t. Finally, his wife forced him to move all the detritus into the garage. Near tears, she describes how he had planned to commit suicide around “this crap,” including the seared jump suit that had to be cut from his body when the rig came apart and was caught in the flames. “Somehow Doug feels this stuff defines him,” she says. Although Brown didn’t carry out his suicide, both he and Stone seem rudderless, stripped of meaning, and invisible even to themselves.

Margaret Brown’s sympathy for the victims is evident in her deft visual juxtapositions. She moves from a joyless room full of people shucking oysters to a ritzy, waterfront restaurant where oil industry types are enjoying shrimp and wine.

A similar segueing strategy animates the most provocative of the invisibilities the filmmaker wants to reveal: Oil company fat cats—Brown literally shows one of them puffing on a big, fat cigar—are our collective creation.

Hardluck City.
Hard Luck City.

Film still courtesy RADiUS Films.

The United States, with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, consumes more than 20 percent of the world’s petroleum. We want gas to be cheap and plentiful. As the film points out, the post-disaster moratorium on Gulf of Mexico drilling is over. There’s more exploration going on there than ever—currently, more than 3,500 oil and gas platforms dot the Gulf of Mexico, connected to as many as 20 wells each. Revenue from royalties is second only to the federal income tax in lining the U.S. treasury’s coffers. While it’s cathartic—and entirely justified—to spill bile at BP, the greatest invisibility is our own complicity in a culture that rewards taking risks to achieve big payoffs in fossil fuels. Brown makes the point visually, showing Stone filling his tank with cheap gas even as he describes the horror of the explosion.

But the picture isn’t quite as bleak as Margaret Brown imagines. While it’s true that, no new safety legislation has emerged from Congress (surprise), new regulations and new oversight mechanisms have been put in place. These are designed to reduce the likelihood of another great blowout, and to deal more swiftly and effectively with any disaster that does occur.

These regulations have rightly been criticized as inadequate, but the oil companies have incentive to do a better job anyway. Toward the end of the film, the father of one of the men killed on the rig is shown driving to watch the U.S. government’s civil trial against BP, TransOcean (which owned the rig), and Halliburton (which supplied the cement used in the well). “Somebody sometime ought to start feeling something … besides greed,” he laments.

Well, now they have. The film wrapped before the trial concluded. Two months ago, the federal district court in Louisiana found BP liable for gross negligence, meaning that the company could be made to cough up approximately $18 billion in fines to the government. (TransOcean and Halliburton were found much less culpable.) Even for a huge oil company, that’s a big hit. BP’s stock price is down, and the corporation can’t afford another huge disaster. This can’t be written off as business as usual.

In the end, then, BP’s bottom line will to do more to prevent future catastrophes than anything else that might be tried. The only other thing sure to help would be less reliance on oil in the first place. But, as the Great Invisible makes clear, that day still seems a long way off.