Keeping dams out of the Grand Canyon, uncovering massive toxic dumping at Love Canal, fighting the devastation of Brazilian rain forests, stopping the slaughter of whales — “A Fierce Green Fire,” from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mark Kitchell (“Berkeley in the Sixties”), affords an overview of more than five decades of environmental activism. It could easily have been overwhelming, not to mention depressing. For every ecological battle won, there’s a tougher one around the corner.
But Kitchell’s film, inspired by Philip Shabecoff’s book of the same name, comprehensively tackles a sprawling subject and keeps things loose and lively. The film is divided into five parts, each with a different focus and narrator. The first section, narrated by Robert Redford, charts the birth of the environmental movement in America. The nascent Sierra Club spearheaded opposition to the creation of dams in Dinosaur National Park in the ’50s and in the Grand Canyon in the ’60s.
The second section, narrated by Ashley Judd, is one of the strongest, as the film revisits New York’s Love Canal neighborhood, which sat atop a massive toxic-waste dump. One of the most riveting talking heads in the film is Lois Gibbs, the mother whose fight for one sick child became a movement and who remains an ardent activist today.
The section about another “accidental” activist is also memorable and worthy of its own film. Isabel Allende narrates the segment on Chico Mendes, a rubber-tree worker in a Brazilian rain forest who was murdered for his efforts to keep the forest from encroaching cattle ranchers and loggers. Also compelling is the footage of early Greenpeace efforts to fight the slaughter of whales — the sight of ragtag bearded guys dwarfed by massive Russian ships in bloody waters never gets old — which galvanized a movement and spurred international regulations. The film doesn’t shy away from recounting controversies among the activists themselves. It documents Greenpeace founder Paul Watson’s break from the group for “going too far” and his current “eco-terrorist” work with the Sea Shepherd program.
The script is sometimes ponderous and more suited to a classroom education film, and the music, including satirical songs, is more distracting than illuminating. But the new and archival footage, along with an impressive array of talking heads (scientists, writers, activists, and organizers) more than makes up for any missteps. There’s riveting footage of early warnings by Buckminster Fuller and perceptive commentary from 350.org founder Bill McKibben. He recounts how President Carter launched efforts to fund alternative energy sources and how it was all dismantled after 1980 by President Reagan, leaving the United States far behind other developed nations in such forward-thinking endeavors as solar energy and wind turbines.
The final section of this whirlwind tour of modern environmental activism, narrated by Meryl Streep, deals with climate change and global efforts to combat it.
Melding history, science, and up-to-the-minute urgency, “A Fierce Green Fire” is a clarion call that’s passionate and provocative.
OK, and a little depressing, too.