Saving Pelican 895 debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
It’s easy in this day and age of 24-hour cable news, with the breadth (if not depth) of information that flies our way each day, to be simply overwhelmed by the onslaught. I’m not sure if we’ve been just too desensitized as time has gone on or if the sheer number of awful events is so great that there’s a tendency to replace yesterday’s tragedy with tomorrow’s calamity. As such, we tend to move on from horrific events that have no business being displaced so quickly from the forefront of our thoughts. Saving Pelican 895, the latest documentary from HBO, takes us back to one of those seemingly forgotten events, albeit from an unusual perspective.
The BP oil spill that rocked the Gulf Coast just a few years after Hurricane Katrina dominated the social and political landscape for the months in which oil gushed freely. Everyone from the oil companies down to various branches of government down to Kevin Costner (who invested $20 million in oil/water separation technologies before this catastrophe, technologies eventually used by BP) chimed in to solve what seemed like an impossible conundrum. Saving Pelican 895 largely avoids both politics and histrionics, which may confuse many watching the program expecting a polemic. Instead, it’s mainly just about pelicans.
That the documentary tells such a small story isn’t an indictment against it, but those seeking a firebrand story in which BIG CORPORATIONS are taken to task for destroying the world’s ecosystem might be disappointed. Those interviewed from the moment in which one particular pelican is rescued through its attempted release back into the wild have one thing and one thing alone in their minds throughout this short film: the survival of the birds under their care.
This doc takes its name, unsurprisingly, from the 895th rescued bird along the oil-ridden shores of Louisiana. The images speak for themselves, with the once-familiar sight of oil-covered birds brought simply and shockingly back into focus. When the rigs such as BP are mentioned, they are discussed mainly as an unfortunate, unsolvable problem. No one on-camera is pro-Big Oil, but none of them have any illusion that they aren’t part of a consumer culture that demanded such rigs be built to accommodate modern society.
From the wildlife biologist who managed to capture 895 through the veterinarian that treats him to the workers at the rehabilitation center that nurse him back to health, a theme emerges in the group's work ethos. That theme: Leave politics to others, and focus on the unfortunate task at hand. There’s a workmanship that might seem off-putting to those expecting more onscreen indignation, but there’s something satisfying about people not railing against the ills of the world and solving one small problem right in front of their faces.
That relationship between the micro and macro problems of society is laid out in a quote that starts Saving Pelican 895: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The quote comes from John Muir and accurately describes the methodology at hand here. It’s not that those featured in this documentary are apolitical so much as they simply have no time to rant and rave when nearly two dozen dying pelicans come their way on a daily basis. There are moments that point out how unusual it is for the United States to require oil companies to pay for environmental catastrophes (a by-product of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill), but again, these moments are played casually, which doesn’t dilute the message so much as reinforce its economic as well as moral common sense.
If there’s a slight charge to be made against the documentary, it’s that 895 himself comes off as an example of the problem, not a true protagonist, for the majority of the film’s short running time. By that, I mean that we’re following the process by which a pelican got rescued and released but not what made this particular pelican’s journey through that process, in and of itself, particularly special. His full “name” in this piece is LA895, a designation assigned by the rescue workers to identify the state and numerical order in which the bird was found. At one point, a worker admits they give such an assignation to emotionally protect themselves from growing too close to the pelicans. That’s a somber point but one that perhaps illustrates how 895 is slightly distanced throughout the documentary.
Once he’s rescued, there’s little sense that 895 won’t make it through to the other side. That’s probably preferable to an artificially overwrought tale that toys with audience emotions more than a Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial. Still, since the narrative arc theoretically centers around 895’s ability to once again live independent of human intervention, he struggles not only to survive but to overcome his Jean Valjean-esque quest to be more than just a number. Luckily, by the second half of the doc’s running time, 895 comes into his own personality a bit more, as his pursuit of flight turns into a metaphor for Louisiana’s efforts to recover after a second horrific tragedy in the same decade.
Saving Pelican 895 ultimately is about the cycles of life, focusing on one bird on one coastline as a way to highlight how humans perpetually harm the environment through technological innovation and then seek to repair it through rediscovered/reawakened compassion. It doesn’t omit BP’s role in the disaster so much as place it in the background, always felt if not directly commented on. That 895 is there at all speaks to the tragedy that didn’t come from simply one corporation but rather a culture that led that corporation and countless others to dot the Gulf Coast with machines that bring both amazing riches to some and amazing suffering to many more.
One rehab worker comments that his efforts, “… [don’t] mean everyone should wash a bird. It means that everyone should, in my mind, support it.” It’s both an obvious yet powerful way in which this documentary speaks to the possible improvement of humanity through the effort to save a single bird. This documentary won’t be remembered in the annals of HBO’s greatest non-fiction efforts, but it is worthwhile for looking for answers to a question many had simply forgotten existed.
- The DIY nature of the rehab center is something to behold, with plenty of the signs and crates in the makeshift facility marked with labeled duct tape. That no one complains about this type of set-up is another example of how little these workers bemoan their situation.
- At one point, 895 ends up in something called a “Pre-Wash Marination Lounge,” something that sounds much cooler than it really is.
- As muted as much of the drama of this doc is, it’s strangely over-orchestrated at times, as if not trusting the images onscreen to convey the proper emotion.
- The rehab’s version of “Pelican Island” would make the most depressing Sea World exhibit ever.
- “That will make them realize, ‘Oh, I AM kinda hungry, even though this sucks.’”