Combustible Celluloid
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With: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Isabel Allende, Van Jones (narrators), Bill McKibben, Stewart Brand, Paul Hawken, Tom Turner, Doug Scott, Martin Litton, Jerry Mander, John Adams, Carl Pope, Robert Bullard, Stephanie Mills, Rex Wyler (interviewees)
Written by: Tom Turner
Directed by: Mark Kitchell
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 101
Date: 15/03/2013

A Fierce Green Fire (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

What a Way to Run a Planet

Full disclosure: my friend and former editor at, Craig Phillips, is an associate producer on A Fierce Green Fire.

Filmmaker Mark Kitchell, of the Oscar-nominated Berkeley in the Sixties (1990), returns after a long absence with the documentary A Fierce Green Fire, which charts the overall history of the environmental movement of the last century. Divided into five sections, each with its own celebrity voiceover, it begins with John Muir and the attempt to protect national parks from being flooded, moves through the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, "save the whales," and many other key moments.

Now, I grew up in a house that was violently opposed to the Sierra Club. My dad wasn't an anti-environmentalist, so to speak, but he was very much against the actions of the Sierra Club. I couldn't help thinking what it would have been like to watch this movie with my dad. Would it have changed his mind? Regarding the movie's first three-fifths, the answer is, rigidly, no.

Kitchell's presentation is a classic "preaching-to-the-converted" one. It takes a defensive stance, clearly acknowledging that an opposition exists. Yet it never addresses the opposition's view. It very simply assumes that any opposing view is wrong. Now, of course, you could argue that this is the correct way to go, especially when the movie gets to its fourth part, showing how the Amazonian rubber tapper Chico Mendes was murdered over his environmental activism. The movie allows the viewer to assume that cold-blooded, heartless corporations bent only on power and profit did this horrific deed. And it's easy to get worked up. But the movie doesn't actually provide any research or proof.

When the movie gets to its fifth part, the climate crisis, Kitchell's presentation begins to make sense. (Kitchell was wise enough to save his ace-in-the-hole, Meryl Streep, to narrate this part.) No matter who the opposition is, or what they think, or how they operate, does not matter even a tiny bit compared to the colossal problem that exists with the earth's rising temperature. We know that various U.S. presidents have ignored global warming, and we know that other politicos have tried to pass it off as a giant hoax. But it's real, and even certain naysayers are starting to come around (see also Chasing Ice).

The tone in this final part is totally stripped of arrogance or argument. It's simply stated as a sad fact, with a kind of awe. Whales? We didn't have any idea. The interviewees explain that they underestimated the hugeness of the global warming problem, and that nobody in their right mind could have seen it coming. All political and financial conflict needs to be set aside to deal with it. Yet conflict still exists, and may exist well past the point of no return.

If the point of A Fierce Green Fire is to dissipate conflict and join all viewers together under one big cause, then it finally succeeds. One final interviewee wisely explains that, if you like to breathe air, drink clean water, and eat good food, you're an environmentalist. But before the movie gets to that place, it wobbles dangerous close to alienating the people it most needs to convince. I just hope they (my dad and others) watch all the way to the end to realize what a powerful trial-and-error story this is.

Best Buy Co, Inc.