The money shots come late in “Chasing Ice,” a documentary about the pioneering glacier photography of James Balog. For more than an hour, we’ve followed him around Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, as he and his assistants set up cameras facing the great ice sheets, programming them to snap photos at regular intervals. Finally we get the big reveal: The images are arranged as time-lapse sequences in which glaciers melt away like so much butter over the course of a year. As much as one may intellectually believe in climate change, to see it actually happening has the power to stun a viewer into wordlessness. Balog’s work is flip-book apocalypse, and it is undeniable.
The rest of Jeff Orlowski’s film works hard to build up its subject as an obsessive craftsman saint, and that feels vaguely beside the point. Ultimately, it’s the pictures that matter and not the man who takes them. But Orlowski does share Balog’s smoldering rage at a society that refuses to face the consequences of its actions, and that rage forms the necessary spine of “Chasing Ice.” This is an agit-doc with no apologies and a lot of sorrow.
Early on, “Inconvenient Truth”-style charts show us a millennia-long dance of carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures, rising and falling in lockstep; in the last 50 years, the CO2 soars off the charts. But numbers mean little next to Balog’s photos and Orlowski’s video footage, which between them balance on a fulcrum between beauty and distress. Unceasing meltwater cuts deep-blue channels through the ice sheets before vanishing down abysses like liquid down a bottomless drain. Cryoconite holes — small round thaws created by soot blowing in from thousands of miles away — riddle the glaciers with gorgeous pockmarks. Balog’s assistants videotape the calving of an unimaginably huge section of glacier into the sea; it’s as if Earth itself is vomiting.
To go from such images to Balog shedding tears over a malfunctioning camera or impatiently undergoing a third knee operation before heading back into the field on crutches is to jolt from the macro to the micro, from the planetary to the personal. Because “Chasing Ice” is so effective at showing us the really big picture, these smaller moments seem oddly inconsequential (as does a dopey duet by “singer”-actress Scarlett Johansson and violinist Joshua Bell over the end credits). No, it’s not fair, but when an artist opens his lens this wide and this successfully, we can’t help but be more interested in what he sees than in who he is.
What Balog sees (and what Orlowski sees him seeing) is an epochal climatological change that is hastening toward the tipping point, if it hasn’t already gone beyond. These photographs, unfolding in time, function as both proof and relic — a record of a landscape’s memory. Behind the images lie an abiding scorn for those who are unwilling to recognize what’s happening and a lucid dread about where we’re probably heading. If that depresses you, I’m sure there’s something entertaining on TV.