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‘The Cost of Silence’: Film Review

Mark Manning’s eye-opening depiction of the aftermath of 2010’s BP oil spill reveals a frightening case of an ongoing public health crisis.

The Cost of Silence
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A decade has passed since 2010’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy, history’s most catastrophic oil drilling accident that occurred when a BP-operated pipe exploded, leaking millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. There was no successful intervention for months, and time hasn’t healed all wounds. On the contrary, it opened new, irreversible ones as evidenced in Mark Manning’s revealing, thoroughly-researched and enraging documentary “The Cost of Silence.” With his film — a bit unfocused but effective in its message — Manning builds a far-reaching case for why this particular disaster still needs to be on one’s political and environmental radar, especially with the 2020 presidential election.

An experienced oilfield diver of two decades and the fearless truth-telling filmmaker of “The Road to Fallujah,” Manning had apparently been filming the footage featured in his film in secret over more than nine years. Through it, he slowly exposes a deeply rooted cover-up story, the aftermath of which is now a damning, widespread public health crisis affecting millions of people along the American Gulf Coast, whose collective well-being continues to be surrendered for corporate financial gain. It’s an unbearably inhumane scheme that has to do with not only the oil leak, but also the clean-up procedures that followed, with toxic, chemical-filled dispersants sprayed over the ocean by airplanes.

On the surface, those dispersants — loaded with something called Corexit — served to swiftly address the issue by breaking the oil up. But in reality, the oil wasn’t disappearing. Instead, with Corexit as a facilitator, it was being sent down to the depths of the water as tiny drops, making it an out-of-sight/out-of-mind problem to keep the beaches operational and to prop up the tourism on which the susceptible area relies. What’s worse, the dispersants were also speeding up the ways in which the oil was being disseminated into the human body, while also amplifying the substance’s toxicity to wildlife. (One scientist suggests that the dispersants made the oil approximately 52 times more poisonous to the underwater ecology.)

Manning gathers insights and sound-bites from experts and civilians so wide-ranging that it’s tough to fault the director for the film’s somewhat undisciplined construct, which at times begs for a more centered and leanly focused story. Still — especially given that “The Cost of Silence” is the first exposé of its kind on the topic of the BP oil spill — Manning deserves credit for managing to assemble a complex mosaic of the ecosystem surrounding the crisis, involving both the perpetrators of the calamity and the maliciously neglected public that has been suffering the consequences of their actions.

It’s the stuff of horror movies: case after infuriating case that would keep the likes of Erin Brockovich up at night. Think discharges from ears and noses, grotesque skin inflammations, abnormal bodily growths and rapidly climbing cancer rates among kids and adults alike, and you’ll be in the ballpark of the nightmare Manning witnesses up and down the coast. He centers these fearsome conditions in one native commercial fisher in Louisiana, Kindra Arnesen, who defines herself as a concerned parent first and foremost and not an activist.

On the experts side, Manning privileges Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and a former fisher-ma’am in Alaska who comes armed with experience on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, having thoroughly researched and written about its public and environmental impact. He also features anonymous sources who fearfully conceal their identities and those fighting the good fight on behalf of the public. These prove especially valuable in the absence of talking heads from BP, who declined to be interviewed for the film but allegedly kept civilians and medical professionals in check for years through intimidation.

It would be easy to put the blame on the previous administration, considering one of the segments of “The Cost of Silence” that depicts then-president Barack Obama, just months after the spill, ensuring the press and the public of the safety of beaches like the mayor in “Jaws.” But the solution-minded Manning has much bigger fish to fry, with Trump up for reelection, after announcing the world’s largest and most controversial offshore drilling expansion plan back in 2018. “The Cost of Silence” gives you urgent reasons to turn up at the ballot box with your rage and opposition.

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‘The Cost of Silence’: Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 28, 2020. Running time: 84 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Conception Media production. Producers: Langdon Page, Reuben Aaronson. Executive producers: Mark Manning, Jeff Sagansky.
  • Crew: Director: Mark Manning. Writer: Mark Monroe. Camera: Reuben Aaronson. Editor: Langdon Page, Lauren Saffa. Music: Claude Chalhoub.
  • With: Kindra Arnesen, Riki Ott.
  • Music By: