Brian Clark Howard / Home and Tips Editor
"We don't know where the warming will go, but the worst case would be like our sister planet Venus, where it is 250 degrees Celsius, and where it rains sulfuric acid," intoned Stephen Hawking, one of the world's greatest scientists, in his computer-generated voice. The dire warning set much of the tone of the new documentary film The 11th Hour, which opens August 17th.
The 11th Hour is presented, narrated, co-produced and co-written by superstar green celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio. The multi-hyphenate actor had enlisted Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, with whom he had worked on a couple of short green films, to direct the epic 11th Hour for Tree Media Group and Warner Brothers. Leo's film is a departure from the hip, edgy, narrative-driven docs that have been so hot the past few years, and that have been widely credited with resurrecting a largely ignored sector of American cinema.
Don't go to The 11th Hour expecting to see Super Size Me, Sicko, This Film Is Not Yet Rated or the latest from the brilliant Errol Morris. The 11th Hour has a traditional, "serious" structure of interviews and footage that plays like a PBS or Discovery Channel special, albeit one that is very well made. Leo takes viewers through a sober, hard-hitting journey of the ravages of climate change, and touches on other human-induced threats facing our world.
The film plays as sequences of dramatic, tightly edited vignettes of environmental damage and hope, intercut with sit-down interviews with leading green thinkers, the roster of which reads like the speakers at a Bioneers conference (included is Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel). The interviews are intimate, with stark backgrounds in a style that calls to mind Charlie Rose (which, incidentally, now has a great amount of material from past shows archived online).
Ominous, ambient tones play through most of The 11th Hour, heightening the sense of foreboding and seriousness. In this way the soundtrack is similar to the recent nonfiction masterpieces The Corporation and In the Realms of the Unreal.
What Is The Message? Not content with merely addressing climate change (as if that issue weren't big enough!), The 11th Hour brings together experts on sustainable design, biomimicry, consumption, air and water quality, environmental justice, renewable energy, species loss and even religious thought. For example, it was pointed out by leading green thinker David Suzuki that human beings are directly responsible for 55,000 species going extinct every year.
"There isn't one living system that is stable or improving," said green author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken. Author and talk radio host Thom Hartmann argued that humanity could never have exceeded a global population of one billion (it's more than six billion today) without heavy, and unsustainable, use of fossil fuels. In a fascinating, and poignant, interview, former CIA head (and Iraq war supporter) James Woolsey explained that one third of what the U.S. borrows is used for oil imports.
"That's about a billion dollars a day, or at least every working day," said Woolsey, who also has an attention-getting presence in the doc Who Killed The Electric Car?. Woolsey has recently gained acclaim among environmentalists for his efforts to promote conservation and renewable technologies in the name of energy security. The connections to energy run deep in The 11th Hour. In fact, anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter went so far as to say, "Energy is the key to everything we do."
It was also pointed out that ExxonMobil is worth more than all auto companies in the world combined! One of the central themes, stated by psychologist and author James Hillman, was that we can't live separately from nature. Why so many of us think we can is the fundamental cause of our abuse of the planet, according to Hillman, and it seems, DiCaprio.
What About That Other Global Warming Movie? Of course, it is impossible to view The 11th Hour without thinking of An Inconvenient Truth. The two works obviously have a great deal in common in terms of subject matter, tone and even those ambient background sounds. When I first saw An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by how popular it had become, given that pretty hefty doses of scientific explanation are doled out, and not much action "happens," as American moviegoers typically demand.
But the overall affect is quite stunning and profound, and Al Gore's substantial, and seemingly growing, charisma, pushed the film into the stratosphere. Is Leonardo's charisma enough to vault The 11th Hour beyond the green choir and the art theater crowd? One concern is that the celebrated actor appears on screen much less than Gore did, and his brief addresses serve more to bookend the main content than truly live with it. On one hand, An Inconvenient Truth may have primed the public's appetite for more green information. But on the other hand, are we expecting a lot for Americans to go out for another movie that seems to be about impending doom? Many in right-leaning circles will accuse The 11th Hour of trying to scaremonger, or of flirting too heavily with New Age thought.
Many of those in the know will be energized by its raw power and its reinforcement of what they've suspected for some time. The big question remains, will the film reach and affect many in the middle, who represent both the largest swath of society, and who arguably have the greatest ability to make a difference? In the film, professor and sustainable design guru David Orr of Oberlin College called these days "all hands on deck time." Leading conservation biologist Stuart Pimm called it an "enormously challenging time." For his part, Leo said our response to the threats facing our only home planet depend on the "conscious evolution of our species."
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