Alibi V.18 No.42 • Oct 15-21, 2009 

Film Review

Earth Days

Inspirational documentary gives us a history of the environmental movement and cleans up after itself

“Check out my wind-powered camera.”
“Check out my wind-powered camera.”

Earth Days

Directed by Robert Stone

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Stone (Radio Bikini, American Babylon, Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Oswald’s Ghost) takes a contemplative look at the birth of the modern environmental movement here in America with his optimistic, easy-to-watch new eco-doc Earth Days.

Taking a similar eye-pleasing (though slightly less abstract) approach to documentary construction as master stylist Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven; Fast, Cheap & Out of Control; The Fog of War), Stone patiently leads us on a visual trip back in time through a wealth of zeitgeist-grabbing stock footage. TV commercials of postwar America (advertising everything from cars to refrigerators) posit a future in which technology has created a utopia well segregated from messy nature, while newsreel footage shows children frolicking happily in swimming pools as clouds of DDT are pumped over their pasty suburban skin. (Rendered, often, in eye-popping Technicolor, these scenes of white-bread domestic bliss gone by are looking more surreal by the day.) By the time the ’50s faded into the ’60s, however, certain people were starting to notice that not everything about our proposed future might be so dreamy. Stone concentrates on a group of people who were there at the dawning of the environmental age in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Each is identified by the iconic role he or she played: There’s the activist, the futurist, the organizer, the politician, etc.

“Take that, ozone layer!”
“Take that, ozone layer!”

Through interviews and some quick Discovery Channel history lessons, we observe the high points: The publication of Rachel Carson’s watershed book Silent Spring, Richard Nixon’s signing of the Clean Air Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the release of the Whole Earth Catalogue, the climactic celebration of the very first Earth Day. Of course, those who lived it are likely to take a trip more nostalgic than educational. Those who weren’t around (or terribly cognizant of the world beyond “Sesame Street”) at the time may find themselves both enlightened and inspired.

It is slightly humbling to see the overwhelming success of 1970’s inaugural Earth Day or to realize the impact the very first full photograph of Earth taken from space had on mankind. It’s also slightly puzzling to look back on a time when mankind suddenly “got it” and realized that filling rivers with deadly pollutants wasn’t a good idea. Given the current GOP-supported backlash against global warming, it kinda makes you wonder how we lost our way again.

Earth Days is fairly honest about the shortcomings of the environmental movement. Scenes of idealistic hippie communes are dismissed as noble but doomed experiments from the get-go. Early head-to-head frustration pitting hardworking loggers against the Sierra Club points up the continuing need to find mutual goals—as opposed to the now de rigueur, FOX News-approved partisanship on every issue. Despite a couple of self-deprecating admissions, the film’s writer/director/producer isn’t doing a hard-hitting exposé of the environmental movement. He’s clearly handpicked the most respected and well-spoken representatives to stand up for the cause: anti-population growth guru Dennis Meadows, head of the Carter administration’s Solar Energy Research Institute Denis Hayes, self-proclaimed “hippie astronaut” Rusty Schweickart among them. Get a bunch of unscrubbed, dreadlock-wearing members of ELF on camera, and you’d have a much different doc.

“Read ’em and weep.”
“Read ’em and weep.”

At times, Earth Days does have a slightly self-congratulatory tone, as if rewarding Baby Boomers for all their good work with another handful of sixtysomething saints to fawn over. Then again, it’s hard to argue with some of the results. Ultimately, Earth Days is a gentle, stirring call to arms. Uninterested in doom and gloom and repetitions of impending eco-collapse, the film chooses to concentrate on the personalities behind the environmental movement and the feelings that brought each of them to the forefront of this lifelong (and continuing) quest.

The film wraps up its story circa 1980 with the election of President Ronald Reagan—which might seem a chapter or two short. Sure, there are good reasons to brand Reagan as the ultimate environmental enemy, undoing 20 years’ worth of Earth-saving legislation with a few waggles of his pen and sculpting the model for future Republican contentiousness. (Does the refrain “Drill, baby, drill” sound familiar?) Still, a bit of follow-through might have been nice. Obviously, Earth Day persists, we’re still dealing with many of these problems and there is likely an environmental activist or two under the age of 60 out there somewhere. Sure, it’s valuable to look back on history, but occasionally history needs to knock off with tooting its own horn and start telling us what to do.