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A Fierce Green Fire

May 4, 2013
A Fierce Green Fire

The common schoolroom complaint about history is that it’s a collection of random facts presented for little purpose beyond rote memorization and recitation. And in the first years this is true, but by the time a student comes to high school and college the facts should come to be seen as the raw material of a story — the aggregate to be cemented by a real understanding of historical dynamics into concrete narratives. Unfortunately A Fierce Green Fire presents mostly the gravel of the history of the environmentalist movement, and offers little in the way of critical or dynamical analysis to make it into a solid, engaging story.

And it’s hardly the case that there are no good stories to be found in this history. Indeed, the movie gives us superficial passes at five of them, assembled mostly from archival footage and new interviews, with the roughest transitions smoothed by voiceovers from Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende, and Meryl Streep.

The first part discusses conservation, anchored by the efforts to preserve national park lands. We hear about the fight on the part of John Muir and the early Sierra Club against damming and flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley — which story is told better by Ken Burns in his documentary on the park system — followed by the later efforts through the ’60s to save the Grand Canyon from similar destruction. Then we’re on to pollution and the rise of environmental awareness with the first Earth Day. We hear about the efforts of Love Canal residents to get relocation funding.

The next couple parts are a bit less focused. We get a bit about the Whole Earth Catalog and non-polluting alternatives. There’s a large chunk about the rise of Greenpeace and their anti-whaling efforts, including the offshoot Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that went beyond blocking whalers and started actively sinking them. And the plight of the rainforests is anchored by the activism of Chico Mendes and others who organized Brazilian rubber tappers to lay claim to the lands they used and stem the tide of deforestation.

The final section on climate change is, in a way, the most disappointing, but given the proliferation of better climate change documentaries it may be the least essential. The 1988 congressional testimony from James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute may have been contained in the 1993 book by Philip Shabecoff that forms the nominal basis of the movie, but most of the development since then is new to the film, and even more perfunctory than the rest.

But all we have here is a bare collection of facts — what happened and when, with little examination of why. There is no overall narrative arc that carries us through the facts and on to the future. The movie dribbles out with a scrolling list that we are told contains tens of thousands of local environmental organizations, meant to assure us that there are things which can be done, and that people are doing them, but with no hint given what those things are.

There’s also little connection drawn between any of the presented facts. In one section we learn about Jimmy Carter placing solar collectors on the roof of the White House, while in another we hear about his administration denying funds to the Love Canal homeowners. The incongruity goes completely unnoted, and there’s no discussion of what would lead the Carter administration to make such a decision. Could it have been related to the 1980 presidential challenge from the far right by Ronald Reagan? could this shed light on what has gone wrong in the past and how the movement might achieve better outcomes in the future? I don’t know, and the filmmakers don’t seem interested in asking.

What the movie has plenty of is truthiness. It’s great at giving those visceral applause lines, and at offering up black-hatted, handlebar-mustachioed, right-wing villains for the audience to hiss at. Seriously, people in the audience hissed. As interviewee Martin Litton puts it, “If you don’t have any hatred in your heart, then what are you living for?” Unfortunately this approach can become a little unmoored from facts, as when Ashley Judd marvels that the EPA was created with broad bipartisan support, her voice never giving away the irony that the parties in the 1970s were very different from the ones we see today.

Lacking any coherent story, A Fierce Green Fire seems to function more as a primer on the history of the environmentalist movement than a serious historical assessment. And executive producer Marc Weiss admits that it’s really not constructed for a theatrical presentation. It might do well as an introduction in a middle school classroom, but not in your local multiplex.

Worth It: not in theaters.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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