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Movie Review

Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle

‘Spin’ doctors: Examining the Cape Wind controversy

Cape Wind A 2008 image of Cape Wind head Jim Gordon from the film. (Rebirth Productions/AP Photo)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 15, 2012
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The people behind the controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound claim that, when completed, their 130 offshore turbines will provide 75 percent of the energy for Cape Cod and the islands. If someone could figure out a way to harness the decade of hot air blowing from both sides in this battle, we could power the whole country.

“Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle,” a new documentary by Robbie Gemmel and John Kirby, sets itself up at a healthy remove from the fray. It gives everyone his or her say, allows space for both sides to shoot themselves in the feet, and is generally as evenhanded as possible. It’s not an agit-doc. Instead, it’s a civic farce that explores the comedy of stubbornness — how the refusal to listen to other points of view just results in perpetual acrimony and white noise.

That’s an interesting approach, and you wish the film were more successful at it. “Cape Spin” introduces us to the key players: Cape Wind Associates prime mover Jim Gordon; Audra Parker, the major face and voice of the opposition group, The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound; Barbara Hill, spokeswoman for the pro-wind farm group Clean Power Now. We hear their rationales, and we witness a lot of fudging on all sides. If Gordon’s for green energy, why is he building a diesel-burning plant near a Chelsea school? If the Alliance is pro-renewables and just wants the turbines moved elsewhere, why is it funded by oil-refinery billionaire Bill Koch?

Everyone weighs in: local fishermen, the Sierra Club, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the Wampanoags, “The Daily Show.” No one lacks an agenda. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. backtracks on his pioneering pro-wind efforts to side with the Alliance; he goes NIMBY because, in effect, the Sound is the Kennedys’ backyard. Various members of the New England media — editor Robert Whitcomb of the Providence Journal, reporter Beth Daley of the Globe — are on hand with tales of getting spun by both sides. When a Wampanoag lawyer breaks ranks with the tribe and backs the project, he turns out to be on Cape Wind’s payroll. There’s a story of money fighting money here that only gets half-told.

“Cape Spin” might have been stronger if it had stuck to the chronology instead of bouncing around in time, and its sidebars on the horrors of current energy practices — how mountaintop removal has devastated communities in West Virginia, for example — are compelling but tangential. (They also tip the filmmakers’ hand.)

And for all that the movie does right, which is mostly just listen to local Joes and national senators, idealists and pragmatists, angels and jerks, the underlying attitude of snark can get hard to take. A single shot of a coal-burning plant spewing toxins to the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is plenty; “Cape Spin” gives us several. It’s fair game to mock political grandstanding with cheesy patriotic music, but it’s just insulting to illustrate Parker’s and Hill’s climactic debate on public radio’s “To the Point” with vintage clips of lady boxers.

They deserve better and so do we. “Cape Spin” doesn’t need to stoop to cheap laughs to fulfill its mission. All it has to do is show how much energy has been expended in 10 years without producing any energy at all.

(Note: The filmmakers will be present for Q&A sessions after the 7:20 p.m. screenings of “Cape Spin” at the Coolidge on June 15 and 16.)

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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Movie Review

Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle

Directed by: Robbie Gemmel and John Kirby

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 86 minutes

Unrated (as PG: brief language, scenes of environmental rape)

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