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In Review

The 11th Hour

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Produced and Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by Leila Connors Petersen and Nadia Connors. 91 minutes; Warner Independent Pictures.

The urban organic farm I co-manage relies heavily on volunteers, and when a new one arrives, I try to engage the person in a conversation about how they became interested in sustainability. This spring I was weeding with one volunteer, a late-twentysomething named Davin, and was blown away by his story of how he became an environmentalist. Davin used to be a car salesman, and spent his days hawking Cadillacs and SUVs. Then he saw the documentary The Corporation, and the film overturned his worldview. He quit his sales job and enrolled in classes at Northern California’s progressive NewCollege. The film was, he told me, a “paradigm shifter.”

Such conversion tales are the Holy Grail of documentary filmmakers. The hope motivating many documentarians is that their work will spur the viewer to look at the world afresh, and, perhaps, even take action to address the problems they have just witnessed.

That is obviously the intention of Leonardo DiCaprio, whose new documentary, The 11th Hour, unflinchingly examines our converging ecological crises and then encourages the audience to join the movement for environmental sanity. Whether DiCaprio will succeed is less dependent on the film – which is smart and engaging – and more reliant on the always hard-to-measure mood of our attention deficit disorder nation.

As the movie makes clear from the opening frame, we’re in big trouble. The 11th Hour begins with a montage of apocalyptic scenes: hurricanes thrashing homes, forests on fire, floods, sinister smokestacks, and, in a discomforting juxtaposition, a few shots of a developing fetus. Overwrought, maybe, but deserved, given the state we’re in.

From there, the movie dissects how we got to this dystopia. Our reliance on fossil fuels is fingered as the main culprit, responsible for our binge lifestyle and the heating of the atmosphere. Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour goes beyond climate change to address the full range of eco-challenges pressing us. We’re shown how sick the Earth’s system is – topsoil eroding, fisheries collapsing, water polluted, the air toxic.

All together, it’s a well-told Environmentalism 101. As Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai puts it: “I tell my people, ‘If you cut the forests on the mountains, the rivers will dry up, the rains won’t come regularly, the crops will wither, and you will die of starvation and hunger.’”

Directors Leila Connors Petersen and Nadia Connors do a fine job of highlighting such grassroots activists and keeping the famous narrator’s role modest. DiCaprio is limited to a half-dozen on-screen appearances. He’s seen darkly scanning the Manhattan skyline and admiring the California coastline. With an angry squint and a furrowed brow, he blames “political and corporate leaders” for failing to confront our ecological crisis.

Most of the talking is done by a who’s-who of longtime environmental leaders: Paul Hawken, Paul Stamets, David Suzuki, Betsy Taylor, Bill McDonough, Thom Hartmann, Omar Freilla, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The interviews are spliced with what has become the default aesthetic of environmental documentaries: coupling awe-inspiring shots of our beautiful planet with the just plain awful sights of how we’re cannibalizing it.

The film’s best trait is the passion of its experts. The talking heads don’t just deliver facts – they make arguments, demanding that the audience listen to their warnings. The genuine feeling displayed by the interviewees gives the film an emotional depth that, hopefully, will be contagious, and will prompt viewers to leave the theater with a new commitment to environmental defense.

Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess. The 11th Hour is a serviceable documentary. But will it influence the national discussion, as An Inconvenient Truth did, or be a non-fiction blockbuster like Fahrenheit 911? How many individuals’ paradigms will it shift?

The filmmakers clearly believe that raising the public’s awareness of environmental destruction remains the most important task for the green movement. Nearly a decade after DiCaprio hosted an ABC News Special on the environment, this is discouraging, to say the least. One can only hope that we won’t need another reminder in 10 years. Because, as this urgent film shows, time is quickly running out.


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