When the green movement began
‘Earth Days’’ is the rare ecological documentary that doesn’t nag us to run out of the movie theater and change the world. Not that the environmentalists interviewed would stop us, mind you. But in reconstructing the rise of the American environmental movement, filmmaker Robert Stone creates a simmering, thoughtful, visually absorbing history out of the experiences of a handful of the people who have dedicated their lives to keeping the planet from collapse. They’re too busy talking about the alarms they sounded in the 1960s and ’70s to be flagrantly alarmist now.
Of course, nostalgia is not what Stone is up to, either - not strictly. He wants to provide some perspective on today’s ecological crises and the debates over such crises. That’s the thing about looking back discreetly. The present resonates all too well in the past.
The movie shows a group of notable environmental activists - author Paul Ehrlich, former congressman Pete McCloskey, Dennis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day, to name a few - back when they were treated like young Cassandras. It took a great deal of effort to convince the media and the government to take seriously their prophesies of catastrophe (overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, and on and on). Their seriousness makes today’s eco-stuntpeople seem slightly foolish.
Stone encases his history in montages built almost entirely out of stock footage and an original score by Michael Giacchino, who’s composed music for everything from Pixar’s “Ratatouille’’ to ABC’s “Lost.’’ And it takes about 20 minutes for doubt about this approach to go away. Stone quickly introduces his nine cast members by category: the Biologist (Ehrlich), the Astronaut (Rusty Schweickart), the Motivator (L. Hunter Lovins), the forecaster (Dennis Meadows), and, for their interviews, has them sit in front of various nighttime scenes. We see brush, we see stars. While they talk, Giacchino’s score works hard to produce the Philip Glass experience.
But once the earnest throat-clearing is over, Stone’s central idea emerges. For many members of the generation that grew up comfortably ensconced in the trappings of the American middle class, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring’’ hit like a bomb in 1962. The book presented a world poisoned by pesticides and other chemical pollutants. To underscore its point, Stone (who edited the movie with Don Kleszy ) finds footage of children lunching at a picnic table as a cloud of gas descends on them. They keep eating, anyway. That’s followed by a scene of a woman spraying her kitchen with an aerosol can. Giacchino’s music brings out the funny, scary science fiction lurking in those scenes.
The trouble with stock footage in documentaries has always been a matter of context. From where exactly are these images? And yet how much does a mushroom cloud need an explanation? You come to trust Stone’s use of archival material because he uses it to tell an absorbing story. “Earth Days’’ captures those years when through sheer relentlessness, activists broke through to the public and put the mounting disaster at its doorstep. The movie argues that the government became increasingly involved in conservation and preservation, culminating with the Carter administration and pretty much dying with Ronald Reagan.
Stone doesn’t go very deeply into the movement’s shortcomings, such as its ongoing failure to attract more non-white, non-rich, and middle-class people. (There’s an amusing clip from an old “Face the Nation’’ episode in which the uptight white panelists seek to discredit the radicalism of the environmentalists seated before them by asking where the black people are.) Nonetheless, “Earth Days,’’ which is scheduled to air on PBS’s “American Experience’’ series in April, serves as both a rich remembrance and a political caveat. Listening to these men and women recount what they’ve accomplished or have yet to, you can hear both determination and disappointment, but never satisfaction.
In fact, they all look so tired now. They know there’s still a lot of work to be done.