Frontline: The Spill (DVD Review)10 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark
You can’t buy the caliber of publicity BP got from its Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and this typically taut “Frontline” documentary, which aired on PBS this past October, adds to the negative ballyhoo. It’s one of those chronicles that shows how a major disaster was far from an isolated occurrence in terms of a corporate culture — the kind of look-back that recalls dreadful previous incidents from the past you may have half-forgotten unless you lived in the geographical area affected.
It wasn’t many years ago that BP was the oil industry equivalent of a ‘B’-movie studio — until former British CEO Lord John Browne instigated the purchase of Amoco, which led to both fantastic growth and a “too much, too fast” syndrome with the worst kind of ramifications. You sense a little of the Brit-vs.-Yank type of culture clash we saw when the Brits bought the Sterling Cooper ad agency a while back on “Mad Men.” But at least in that situation, those affected were in certain ways cut from similar cloths. Here, it’s effete and opera-loving Browne ordering draconian budget cuts in the early 2000s, while the flannel-shirt realists who actually have to work the oilrigs are fearful for their lives and even vocal about it.
The Texas City, Texas, refinery BP acquired from Amoco in 1999 had already been regarded as “troubled”: It was built in 1934, there was lots of corrosion, and — in something the documentary calls a “warning sign,” as if this is something we couldn’t figure out ourselves — it suffered about a fire a week. The culmination was the biggest industrial accident in decades: an explosion on March 23, 2005, that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others — the result being then-record fines for safety violations numbering into the hundreds and $1 billion paid out to families as long as they signed an agreement to remain silent. All did except for one woman who lost both of her parents and was miffed that she received a sympathy form letter acknowledging the death of one but not the other. Well, yeah.
Lord Browne talked “green” in lip service that promised improvement, which didn’t quite jibe with a massive BP oil leak in the Alaskan tundra that had the good fortune to occur in the winter, where it could be more easily contained (had it been summer, it would have been a hall-of-fame ecological disaster). The company was still utilizing a 20-year-old infrastructure that was supposed to be phased out in 1987. Amid all this, the board of directors started to become wary of Browne, especially after tabloids started getting into his personal life in terms of seamy specifics about his gay lover. In an in-house competition that never quite yielded the ideal candidate, Tony Hayward became Browne’s CEO replacement. He, of course, became the symbol of corporate arrogance with a disastrous performance in front of Congress after 2010’s so-called “well from hell” Gulf explosion killed 11, injured 17 more and set off one of the largest oil spills in history. Combined with the Congressional footage in director Kevin Rafferty’s 1999 anti-tobacco The Last Cigarette, this documentary now lays the early groundwork for a non-fiction retrospective devoted to scenes featuring Rep. Henry Waxman of California chewing lots of corporate behind in public hearings (and, I’d guess, for the camera).
The Spill runs an hour with nary a dull moment, though someday, after more perspective, one can imagine its subject getting the full-scale treatment that, say, Spike Lee gave Hurricane Katrina in When the Levees Broke. Certainly, anyone who work for an arrogant employer will empathize with what they see: videotaped corporate condolences that don’t seem that sincere; public declarations of costly improvements as orders are simultaneously coming down from the top to cut everything by 20% or 25%; public hubris, as when Hayward (who eventually went the employment way of Browne) testified in front of Congress just how wretchedly the oil spill disaster had affected him. Henry, get out your paddle.