Fiddling While Earth Burns

Last year, when the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” alerted America to the real and present dangers of global warming, Al Gore was the star – which proved both a blessing and a curse.

By: DAVID KENNERLEY

THE 11TH HOUR

Directed by Leila Conners Petersen & Nadia Conners

Warner Independent Pictures

Opens Aug. 17 Landmark Sunshine, Lincoln Plaza

Last year, when the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” alerted America to the real and present dangers of global warming, Al Gore was the star – which proved both a blessing and a curse. Democrats flocked to the art houses and got energized for the cause, while Republicans stayed away in droves, preferring to marginalize the effort as liberal propaganda. Science fiction, even.

So when I heard that heartthrob-turned-ecologist Leonardo DiCaprio produced his own save-the-planet film, titled “The 11th Hour,” I thought at last, a universally likable, youthful figure who'll inject some Hollywood pizzazz and create a highly watchable argument inciting all political persuasions.

Well, almost.

Instead, what we get is a chilling dissertation, long on data and short on dramatic structure, that has all the appeal of an Earth Science 101 lecture. The insightful film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, was written and directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners who have minimal feature film experience. DiCaprio shares writing credit and narrates.

Believe me, it's not that the stock footage of melting glaciers, Hurricane Katrina, and a polar bear climbing a burning trash heap isn't forceful. Or that the sound bites from environmental authorities, culled from more than 150 hours of interviews, aren't individually fascinating.

It's just that the deluge of depressing images and dire predictions from talking heads – 54 of them – with lofty titles like “Professor and Senior Fellow at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy of the Institute for International Studies” is relentless. And mind-numbing.

Just because the subject is dead serious does not mean the documentary has to be. “We are committing suicide,” warns one dour expert early on in the film. Bleak stuff, indeed.

To be sure, glimpses of fresh-faced DiCaprio standing amongst various landscapes offer some relief. Yet he comes across as a celebrity host rather than a participant. I'd have preferred him interacting with the experts, or better yet, the culprits.

I wanted Michael Moore-style interviews, grilling corporate bigwigs about why they're ignoring the evidence and continue raping the land for quick profit with no thought for the future. Or asking President George W. Bush why the EPA seems a shadow of its former self. Or why most cars still run on fossil fuels.

To its credit, “The 11th Hour” looks beyond global warming to tackle a much larger problem — ecological Armageddon. The escalating human population is fast depleting the earth's resources and we face an extinction that is on the horizon.

“We reached out to independent experts on the front lines of what could be the greatest challenge of our time,” says DiCaprio, “the collapse of our planet's ecosystems and our search for solutions to create a sustainable future.”

Such leaders include cosmos whiz Stephen Hawking, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and eco-design experts William McDonough and Bruce Mau.

Here's the crib notes version:

A — All those recent “natural disasters” like record floods, drought, famine, hurricanes, and high temperatures are not natural at all.

B – They're a result of man's increasing reliance on stored “ancient sunlight” in the form of trees, coal, oil, natural gas, etc.C – Burning this energy produces waste that poisons the soil, air, and oceans, upsetting the delicate balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

D – Cutting down rainforests and over-fishing tips the balance further.

E – We must act NOW before we reach the point of no return.Just when I couldn't slump any further in my seat from despair, the film offers a whiff of hope – rather than a culture of consumption, we can morph into a culture of renewal. A host of large-scale “green” design initiatives, suggest the talking heads, can be implemented to “reduce the human footprint” and sustain resources.

“We have the technology,” one expert declares.

That is, of course, if somebody can convince our pigheaded leaders and the mega-corporations to loosen their greedy grip. And that somebody, apparently, is each of us.

Unfortunately, “The 11th Hour” forgets that back when President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, America got on a short-lived ecology kick. Earth Day was created, and “conservation,” “pollution,” and “energy crisis” were household words. We failed to save the planet then, so why would we be able to save it now?

All this isn't to say that DiCaprio's effort isn't a noble, sobering contribution to the cause. It's just that it's a minor one. If nothing else, it offers mounds of scientific, literally earth-shattering evidence that time is indeed running out.

But I'm waiting for a more artfully charismatic film that will attract a wider audience. Only then can we truly reach the filmmakers' goal to “fuel the cultural shift that we so desperately need on a global level.” We must rouse people to action with a compelling story, not overwhelm them with fatalist facts.

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