February 4, 2014

SBIFF Review: Opening Night Doc ‘Mission Blue’ Plumbs Depths of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle


You won’t be ordering fish off the menu soon after viewing Fisher Stevens’ new documentary “Mission Blue,” which world premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday night. 

Both a profile of the life’s work of renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle and a call to reconsider our treatment of the deep seas she has dedicated her life to, the film will appeal to fans of “Blackfish” and the documentary work of James Cameron, who makes a few appearances here. (Press interview with director Fisher Stevens below.)

“Mission” toggles focus between Sylvia Earle’s trailblazing past as a kind of Sally Ride of the seas, as Earle was the first woman to dive to such depths in the ’60s, in a time where men like filmmaker Jacques Cousteau (a hero of Earle’s) dominated the underwaters. The film is less an instructive guide on how we can save the oceans from the forces of over-fishing, carbon emissions and pesticide runoff and more of a baton to pass to younger generations: this is why we need to save our oceans, and here are a few ideas. Go forth.


With personality for days, director Fisher Stevens — who brought his “Crazy Love” to Santa Barbara in 2007, and won an Oscar in 2010 for producing the devastating doc “The Cove” — follows Earle for three years, fine-tuning his own diving skills while diving into the psyche of a woman who, in her own words, doesn’t get along with anyone who doesn’t share her passions. One such passion is algae, a collection of which she carefully curated through the decades and keeps at the Smithsonian in DC.

Like “Blackfish,” “Mission Blue” assaults us with horrific images of over-fishing and the dark side of maritime practices: the severing of shark fins for exotic cuisine, the systematic annihilation of bluefin tuna and the loss of much of the world’s menhaden, a prey fish, to fish oil production. Refracted through “Blue,” the whole industry starts to look more like a genocide, as the film forces us to look uncomfortably close at the realities and ramifications of our seafaring palates.

Director and ocean pioneer James Cameron calls Earle “the Joan of Arc of the seas,” and after watching “Mission Blue” it’s hard to disagree. This woman has almost literally taken her entirely life out to sea, even pulling her kids out of school to go to the Galapagos, and letting a string of marriages suffer. She’s one tough cookie. 

On my way home from the screening that night, I stopped for a bite to eat. But I did not order fish.

From Indiewire, by Ryan Lattanzio 

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