The Great Invisible Documentary Film Review

My review of the documentary The Great Invisible

Director Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible offers an unprecedented look at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its aftermath. Taut and emotional, this is not a film about corporate malfeasance or environmental doom and gloom. Rather, it is the under reported story of the people on the Gulf Coast who suffered a loss of livelihood that could not be recompensed by BP’s victim benefit fund.

When the Transocean-built Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, it killed 11 workers, injured 16, and caused the largest oil spill in US history. The leak was 80 miles wide, spewing 2.4 million gallons of oil a day. After 87 days, only 176 million gallons—less than a third of the spill—were cleaned.

At the time of the disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward’s assurances that BP’s priorities were to “eliminate the leak and defend the shoreline,” rang rather hollow and placated no one. In the anxious days following the spill, BP’s cost-cutting practices that sacrificed safety for profit received attention. The Great Invisible shines a light on a much scarier and less known issue —BP’s fellow oil giants are no less reckless. In footage from Congressional hearings, we see that Exxon and all of the other oil behemoths are no better equipped to handle spills than BP. Their emergency plans are all prepared by the same company, Marine Spill Response Corporation, and are all equally outdated and inadequate (referencing walruses in the Gulf Coast, natch).

The film talks about the oil drilling culture, explaining how workers were rewarded by the company for offering any money-saving ideas. On the Deepwater Horizon, there were 26 systems that if redundant could have prevented the explosion, but in an industry where time is literally money, the impetus to save time led to perilous decisions on shortcuts that should have never been taken.

One of the greatest strengths of The Great Invisible lies in its examination of the impact of the spill on the lives of the people working on The Gulf Coast. The film takes us to Bayou La Batre, the home of Alabama’s seafood industry. We meet the shrimpers, oysterers, and oyster and crab shuckers whose lives were destroyed by the spill, and we meet the good-natured Roosevelt Harris, who runs a mobile food pantry to help those in need following the disaster. It’s a trenchant commentary, with people who previously earned a living on the fruits of the ocean literally reduced to poverty.

The Great Invisible extensively interviews Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney put in charge of the administering the 20 billion BP victim compensation fund. The film brings up an important point—that what initially was posited as a plus, which is having “money upfront,” and not requiring the victims to litigate for compensation had a much darker underside—that victims could not sue BP for damages much larger than what the fund assessed. More importantly, this fund really took advantage of the people who suffered the most—those Gulf residents who had trepidation about dealing with “big city folk” and did not have the ability to produce the kind of proof of losses required for them to be compensated. Nearly half of the claims filed were rejected—not because of lack of validity but because of lack of “proof.” How does one prove how much money one has lost from not being able to do what one has done for generations!? As one person poignantly put it, “we do things with a handshake here.” Paper proof was impossible to come by. The shrimpers and oysters shuckers from Alabama received nominal sums of a couple of thousand for a loss of livelihood amounting to much more financially and even more importantly psychologically.

The Great Invisible offers a novel take on the 2010 disaster, one not reliant on talking heads but on the people who suffered the most. It ends with an important point: lease revenue from leasing areas to oil companies is the second largest source of income for the U.S. government after taxes. Currently, there are 3500 oil rigs operating in the Gulf Coast, the largest in history and certainly more than in 2010. The U.S. government routinely earns billions from leasing ocean space to oil companies. How surprising is it then that they stand little to gain from regulating deep ocean drilling!? It is a deep quagmire and one that should definitely not let us rest easy.




Book Review: The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

My review for Rappahannock Magazine

What’s in a word? Apparently (or maybe not so), a lot argues Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, in his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Pennebaker is a psychologist—as such, he is not interested in the study of language for its own sake but rather in how language gives us an insight into our psychological states. While discourse analysis presently seems to be the realm of communications scholars and anthropologists, Pennebaker breaks with that pattern and offers a rather unique and lively take on a research method that has been used far too long to be novel per se. The Secret Life of Pronouns reads like a sleuth piece (all the more amusing that his research assistant is named Sherlock Campbell)—it wryly reads in a “bet you didn’t expect this” way, all the more so because the book is focused on function words, which lack the pizazz of style words. “Style” or “function” words, along with pronouns, include articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions — all of the connective tissue of language. The nuts and bolts, if you will. People are reasonably good at picking up on “content words”: nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. “Function words are almost impossible to hear,” Pennebaker explains, “and your stereotypes about how they work may well be wrong.” These sneaky lexicon bytes offer an interesting look at our individual psyche and identity, the book demonstrates. Pennebaker and his team created a computer program named LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). His initial interest was in the use of function words, particularly pronouns, as an indicator of improved mental health. Recovery from trauma seemed to require a kind of “perspective switching” that shifts in pronoun use could indicate. The Secret Life of Pronouns is rife with curious discoveries—for example, Pennebaker reveals that Secretary of State John Kerry’s advisers made that mistake during the 2004 presidential race in encouraging him to use “we” more often so as to appear more personable. Kerry was already using “we” too much and unlike with every day people, “When politicians use them, we words sound cold, rigid and emotionally distant.” Or the book opines on why some cultures drop personal pronouns and others don’t (for example, in Spanish, Yo estoy triste vs. estoy triste)—maybe because more tightly knit collectivist cultures tend to drop pronouns, whereas individualist cultures keep them. In the chapter on analysis of poets’ work, Pennebaker discovers that the chairwoman of the “Depressed Poets Society,” Sylvia Plath, uses a lot more “I” words in her poetry, as though taking us closer to the edge of her personal melancholia. The book also uncovers the strong effects that factors such as gender, age, and class have on our language. Women use “I” words a lot more than men and they use cognitive words and social words at much higher rates as well. “The person who uses fewer I-words is the person who is higher in the social hierarchy”—in other words, when people converse with higher-ups, they felt diminished and compensated for that by focusing on their agency. Women, younger people, and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs. Lacking power, he argues, requires a deeper engagement with the thoughts of one’s fellow humans. Pennebaker even discusses “language style matching,” which should pique the curiosity of most online dating hackers out there! The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is incredibly comprehensive in scope, yet written in an accessible, charming way that will make an armchair psychologist out of you. This is not the stuff of stodgy discourse analysis your college professor may or may not have purveyed. Pennebaker also explores how writing can be used to improve mental health. Three aspects of emotional writing are associated with improvements in people’s physical and mental health: 1) accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, 2) acknowledging the negative parts, and 3) constructing a story over the days of writing. Also, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pronouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health became, again illustrating that an internal focus is not necessarily a bad thing for depression; the flip side of anger turned inward is the “I am capable” more agency-driven aspect. The book will truly leave you dazzled by computational linguistics (yes, dazzled)! For example, Pennebaker’s work proves that lying shows rather clearly in people’s words, and that Paul McCartney proved to be a more creative writer than John Lennon. McCartney’s lyrics were far more flexible and varied both in terms of writing style and content than John Lennon’s.