Taming an unruly topic
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, May 3, 2013
A sweeping history of the environmental movement, “A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet” is both a cautionary tale and a triumphant one. The documentary focuses on the individuals who halted deforestation and saved baby seals, but filmmaker Mark Kitchell also delineates the imminent dangers of climate change.
Unfortunately, environmentalism, like the environment itself, is not easily contained. The sprawling documentary feels like Conservation 101, and the lack of focus tempers the overall force of the individual stories, some of which are truly riveting.
The film is divided into five chapters, each with a different narrator. Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Isabel Allende, Van Jones and Meryl Streep fill in the gaps on narratives that range from the founding of the Sierra Club to the Love Canal and Greenpeace’s war on whaling to the Kyoto Protocol.
The film’s title comes from the story of Aldo Leopold, a man who shot a wolf and saw in the dying animal’s eyes “a fierce green fire.” The act, which Leopold immediately regretted, was a catalyst that transformed the man into a conservationist. Leopold turns out to be the first of many subjects in the film, who are spurred by one incident to community--altering action.
One of the most compelling, if already famous, stories features Lois Gibbs, the spitfire housewife who secured relocation fees for herself and her New York neighbors, who had unwittingly been suffering the consequences of Love Canal’s toxic waste. The government refused to acknowledge the source of the area’s high incidence of birth defects, miscarriages, stillbirths and illness, until Gibbs’s crusade. Likewise, Chico Mendes risked his life to save his Brazilian community of rubber tappers, whose livelihoods were threatened by ranchers set on clear--cutting the area.
Each story seems rich enough to carry a documentary on its own (and some have), but as the stories begin to pile up, the total impact equals less than the sum of its parts.
Part of the problem is the many detours between anecdotes that offer interesting tidbits but slow the momentum. A fascinating documentary could probably be made of the snippets about the history of environmentalism from a political standpoint, shifting from a bipartisan goal during the Nixon administration to an afterthought under President Ronald Reagan.
While many advocacy films don’t offer concrete solutions, “A Fierce Green Fire” seems like it might outline some options during one section, “Alternatives.” But after a few glimpses of communes, which are not a real possibility for most people, solar panels and alternative energy, the story delves into Greenpeace’s war against whaling.
It’s a harrowing story, with archival footage of a tiny boat taking on a massive Soviet tanker, but it doesn’t really seem to fit. Maybe it’s a sign that there’s no good way to organize such an unruly subject.
Contains images of violence against animals.