Mission Blue (Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon, 2014): USA

Reviewed by Daniel Chein. Viewed at SBIFF.

Documentaries are appealing to many people because they are about real people, real places, real life. And though this can be very different than narrative filmmaking, there are a couple of limitations I think viewers should be aware of when watching (and critiquing) documentary films. First, no documentary can show the whole truth – any film that claims this warrants suspicion. Second, documentarians choose which reality to show, and thus documentaries are inherently biased. In my opinion, the audience should adjust their expectations from “This is reality” to “This is one documentarian’s interpretation of reality that is partially true.”

Despite its limitations, documentarians still have many creative ways to go about interpreting reality, and there is still plenty room for innovation and exploration. Unfortunately, most documentaries are formulaic and unimaginative, and Mission Blue was a textbook example. The film is a biography about renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her career directed by Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens. As a young girl, Earle talks about her childhood and how she fell in love with the ocean. Earle then goes on to talk about her career and how she dedicated her life to the ocean. One point that Earle makes throughout the film is that the ocean is different than it used to be: coral reefs are gone, oil spills have destroyed ecosystems, and overfishing is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

My biggest issue with this film is that it is propaganda and extremely one-dimensional, both in terms of the issue being addressed and the people addressing it. The way the filmmakers portray Earle is also a problem: she is a god – beautiful and perfect (she is even referred to as your “deepness”). I can’t relate to her. It’s not that I don’t care about what she’s talking about, I do. But the expository information about the state of the ocean is nothing new, it is simply stated by Earle, and Earle is the queen of ocean. This film is meant to be her portrait, and the filmmaker’s do a great job of making Earle look like a saint.

A connection that would have made the film a lot more interesting is the sacrifices she made in order to pursue her career. Earle admits that she did not spend much time with her children, and she was married 3 times, but why was this not explored? This is a film about someone’s life, is it not? Wouldn’t interviewing Earle’s children about their mother add more depth to her character? Even if they don’t have anything good to say, at least they would have a say in the matter. Instead, we see people who admire her work talking about how great she is. This was not a good film in my opinion because I already knew what was going to happen. There are some beautiful underwater shots, but that’s about it. As expected, there is an shameless plug at the end of the film, asking the audience to support her organization, her legacy, her mission blue.


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