By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Wasn't "Planet in Peril" one of the chapter titles from the original "Flash Gordon" serial? Thus another way to define the good old days, back when perils to the planet seemed almost entirely the stuff of science fiction.
Not that there weren't environmental scandals and catastrophes then, but more recently, our collective consciousness has been raised to new and potentially panicky heights by landmark documentaries such as Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and the BBC's thrilling "Planet Earth." To that list we can probably add "Planet in Peril."
CNN's new documentary is a combination of elements that made those other two films memorable: striking high-def nature photography as in "Planet Earth," and a strong environmental viewpoint, as with Gore's illustrated sermonette. In emulating both films, CNN's fails to equal either, but it's still indubitably worthwhile viewing -- provocative in the best ways and refreshingly, rivetingly visual.
Two of the network's top talents go all-out for the project. Anderson Cooper, Mr. Medium Cool himself, actually sheds blood in the line of duty. In New York, he surrenders nearly a half-pint to be tested for the presence of 246 industrial chemicals. The blood was drawn in May, and Cooper learned the results in July.
There's rarely a need for "spoiler alerts" when discussing a documentary, but it seems unfair somehow to reveal the results of Cooper's tests. It's not giving too much away to say that no matter how many chemicals were found in Cooper's blood, the anchor is still apparently as healthy as he looks.
Sanjay Gupta, another bright light when he appears on CNN, ventures forth with Cooper into the back alleys of Bangkok to try to nab dealers in exotic animals, who break the law by selling endangered species. Going undercover with hidden cameras rolling, Cooper peruses a noisy marketplace on a busy Saturday. Many of the animals on display are perfectly legal, but under the table a customer can purchase a $500 tortoise, a $2,700 marmoset or maybe even a $10,000 exotic birdie -- all supposedly protected by Thai law.
"Species loss" is one of the four areas covered in the two-part, four-hour special (tonight and tomorrow night), and it's heartbreaking to see a magnificent tiger felled by a bullet in a quick bit of acquired footage. Cooper travels to Cambodia in pursuit of poachers who leave hurtful snares scattered through the wild. Animals have been known to chew off a paw in attempting to escape the snares, which tighten around a limb the more the animal tries to get loose.
Besides "species loss," the intrepid reporters cover deforestation, climate change and overpopulation. Only about half the various reports that make up the documentary were available for preview, but they reflect a tremendous amount of conscientious effort.
Also participating is Jeff Corwin, a "wildlife biologist" whose high-def nature series on Animal Planet, "The Jeff Corwin Experience," unfortunately tends to be more about Corwin than whatever he's experiencing.
Corwin has the showbizzy gall to impose himself between the camera and whatever wild animal or scenic vista viewers would rather be looking at. But he seems to have his ego under control for CNN, and one assumes his shrieks of pain are legitimate when one of several elephants romping in a river suddenly grabs Corwin's left arm with its trunk, inflicting serious pain. Corwin sustains an array of beastly bruises but, apparently, no hard feelings -- since the elephant was being playful and not nasty.
In Yellowstone National Park, Cooper and company track the gray wolf, reintroduced into the environment after virtual extinction. "It's not easy to find a wolf," Cooper notes. Cooper the trooper is seen carrying some of the camera equipment, lest we imagine he's the prima-donna type. Looking for illegal exotic fare on the alternate secret menu of a restaurant in China, Cooper is informed that the bill of fare for special clients includes not only tiger paw but tiger penis. Are these proud beautiful beasts at long last to be spared no indignity whatever?
"Planet in Peril" suffers from an occasional drowsiness of execution, not helped by a lulling musical track, though it's always clear that we are looking at a massive effort and a project top-heavy with good intentions. Love him or loathe him, Cooper has a singular style that makes him unmistakably unique and a genuine talent for making the arcane and complex accessible.
With this ambitious project -- not the kind of thing that Fox, CNN's chief rival, would be likely to undertake -- Cooper earns another feather for his cap and the network's.
Planet in Peril (four hours) airs tonight, and concludes tomorrow night, at 9 on CNN.