Winner of the SXSW Documentary Grand Jury Award, The Great Invisible is a powerful and convincing documentary about an important topic. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded, killing eleven crewmembers and dumping 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite all the political hubbub and hearings in the aftermath, the US Government has not passed a single piece of safety legislation or drilling policy reform since the accident. If that fact outrages you, then you are the perfect audience for this film. Director Margaret Brown fills The Great Invisible with details about the accident, but far more effective are the interviews with those affected.

From fishermen, to seafood restaurant employees, to charity relief workers, to surviving crew members, it is the human element that drives the message of the film. This, however, is essentially the problem with the film. The Deepwater Horizon accident was bad. There is no one not receiving a BP or Transocean paycheck that doesn’t believe that. This well-made and well-meaning documentary is what I call a propaganda documentary, a prop-doc. It is one long essay about an important issue meant for people who already agree with the filmmaker. And in this case, no one can blame the viewer for agreeing, but what next?

There is surprisingly little new information, and there is no call to action. There is literally nothing that can be done about the situation. So the film becomes a prism portrait of the moment. There is no narrative to The Great Invisible, we jump around in place and person getting a deeper understanding of the aftermath, but there is no progression. I don’t want to discount the craft of the film at all, it is very good at what it does. But did An Inconvenient Truth really change anything about the environment? Did Bowling for Columbine affect US policy on Gun Control? I wish they did…

In fact, the most interesting moments of the film come from access to people that many would consider an impediment to reform, a group of oil executives. As they sit around a table and smoke big fat cigars, they discuss America’s consumer gas problem – people feel they have the right to cheap gasoline. In fact, these men have the best chance to change policy, and to save our future. One of them says ‘tax the hell out of gas’ and drive them to alternatives.

For some reason the filmmaker chose to villainize these men, focusing on long slow-motion shots of them taking puffs of their cigars – such an easy choice – but these were the only people in the movie he really looked at both sides of the issue. No one is going to deny it is terrible what happened in the gulf, or that it will probably happen again given current energy policy, but its only happening because people are allowing it to happen and forcing it to happen with their irresponsible gasoline addiction.

So in the end, I think The Great Invisible succeeds at what it set out to do, but it didn’t set out to do enough. It’s not going to change any minds, or drive policy, and it fails at the single most important aspect of filmmaking, telling a compelling story.


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