The 11th Hour

16 Mar

The 11th Hour (published in Cineaste Magazine Vol. XXXIII, No 1)


If An Inconvenient Truth was a somber, sentimental warning about global warming and the repercussions that mankind could face after years of wasteful living, then The 11th Hour is a town crier, ampped up and propelled by a visceral montage projecting the imminent apocalypse. As the film has it, it’s not only the eleventh hour on the timepiece of doom, but 11:59:59 p.m. The future is a non issue  Yet for all its fire-and-brimstone certainty, The 11th Hour ultimately blossoms into a twenty-first-century PSA of sorts, buoyed by hope and optimism, providing solutions and answers where An Inconvenient Truth never did.

To deliver the bad news, the filmmakers, Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners (sisters), along with producer and de facto narrator/host, Leonardo DiCaprio, have assembled an impressive battery of talking heads. Most are scientists and doctors gleaned from the far reaches of their obscure fields, though some, such as physicist Steven Hawking—so commanding and enigmatic a presence in Errol Morris’s A Brief History of Time—and healthy-living guru Andrew Weil, are immediately recognizable. Also in the eclectic mix are some stark and surprising choices. Take former CIA director James Woolsey or Cold War icon Mikhail Gorbachev. They’re not on tap to articulate how a half centigrade of warming can result in X thousand tons of Artic ice melting and thus triggering a salvo of Katrina-like monsoons—no, they’re there to underscore the point that global warming is more a socio-political issue than a scientific conundrum. After all, when was the last time a scientist saved the world—Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow?

More chilling than any forecast that falls from the lips of prophets of doom (like the Earth’s temperature rising to 250 degrees centigrade, turning it into a Venus-like oven uninhabitable by man) are the recursive images of massive, city-annihilating hurricanes, cracked wastelands littered with skyward jutting ribs of dead cattle, and a lone polar bear scavenging through a flaming industrial junkyard, ostensibly forced inland because its seal hunting ice floes are no more. The how and why mankind arrived at this “tipping point” is neatly summed up as “too many of us with too few resources.” Flashed stats tell us the Earth’s population has exploded from three billion in 1960 to more than six billion today and that massive deforestation has altered the blue planet’s fragile ecosystems precipitously. One contributor surmises that just one tree could be the delta in holding back torrents of mountain rainwater that, if not checked, could cause catastrophic mudslides or earthen avalanches capable of burying a village in a matter of seconds. Another calls Katrina “a prologue” and cites United Nations data projecting one-hundred-and-fifty-million environmental refugees by the middle of the century. FEMA take notice!

To put it all into historical context, the film does a convincing job of tracing the origin of the crisis back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when man was in transition from an existence based on “current energy” sustenance—essentially living diurnally, taking from the land what the sun and seasons provided—to “stored energy,” or fossil fuels—the coals, cokes, and oils we light up and burn today to keep civilization chugging along 24/7. The film tags this seam as the point in time man fell out of sync with nature. Couple that with a pervasive culture of consumption, a lack of conservation of natural resources, an invade-and-plunder disrespect for nature, and run that on high for over a century and you’ve got a toxic shit storm ready to boil over.

Naturally big oil and the United States are singled out as the major perpetrators, but the film is more concerned with the bigger picture than with pointing the finger. It concludes that the U.S.¡ªthe biggest consumer of fossil fuels and arguably, the most influential global leader¡ªis the nation best poised to lead an initiative in reversing the ills, but it also notes that the superpower’s ability to do so has been gravely hampered by the current culture in which corporate lobbyists coddle up to politicians, ostensibly influencing votes with campaign dollars. The theory is loosely hung on the fact that the U.S. government hasn’t passed environmental legislation since the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were inked in the Seventies. The one-shot panacea, one consult suggests, would be to place a dollar value on nature, raising the question, if man had to pay for sunlight, rain, wind, and air, how then would he treat the land? (The theoretical cost is estimated at near $30 trillion, more than the aggregate of all the economies of the world.) It is a piquant notion that many of the others interviewed buy into: make environmental conservation a monetary force and legislatures, globe-spanning companies, and societies will all hop aboard, spurred by the natural pursuit of greenbacks.

Petersen and Conners toss all these concepts, data shards, and their bleak imagery at viewers in rapid-fire succession. Each of the fifty-some-odd experts pop up just a handful of times to toss in their two cents’ worth and then they’re gone. The segments cut away so quickly that it’s hard to remember who says what, and, at turns, one speaker will finish another speaker’s thought. Even DiCaprio gets little face time. The tempo is so frenetic at the onset, it feels as if the film is trying to assert itself by sheer awe rather than by building a compelling groundswell; but as it rallies on, the effect mellows and even matures, yielding a larger collage of reasoning that convinces by collective soul.

It’s also from this collaborative tree that the solutions begin to fall. The “what-we-as-little-folk-in-the-world-can-do-individually” approach gets the rah-rah treatment. It’s nothing groundbreaking (walk when you can, drive a hybrid when you have to drive, turn the lights out when you leave a room, recycle, and so on), but still, a visible Hollywood-endorsed reinforcement that several small acts coupled together can have a larger impact—which by the way, ultimately becomes the film’s default mantra. There’s also some groovy future design mumbo-jumbo showing how buildings terrace-stepped with green, oxygen giving forests, how solar powered planes, hydrogen-propelled cars, and, of course, deserts dotted by sprawling wind farms will help reverse the eleventh-hour damage. Renewable energy and recycled waste are the way. Still, a few of the philosophical and metaphysical panelists hand down a more protracted and abstract rendering, pointing out that man is the only known species able to grapple with its existence in terms of a future and that extinction is a natural phenomenon that’s been played out over and over again throughout the two billion years of life on Earth. The good news viewers can garner from such acumen is that our beautiful blue planet will still be here when we are long gone, and we will become to the next dominant life form what the dinosaurs were to us.

Given the success of An Inconvenient Truth, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, boffo biz at the box office, and spun the tree-hugger manifesto into something mainstream and fashionably hip, the question many will ask is, do we really need another green-themed documentary?Hollywood has always been quick to hook onto what it deems a valiant cause—and what better cause than to save ourselves while saving green expanses and polar ice caps? The downstream effects of Truth were prevalent at the 2007 Academy Awards. The producers, using the media as a mouthpiece, relentlessly extolled their efforts to make the ceremony green, and Gore, the former politico once notorious for his failed presidential bid and wooden delivery, was suddenly the evening’s darling. As Truth’s minister of environmental preservation, he shone on stage, reborn like lush green acres in the Amazon, once slashed and burned, now reseeded and given back to the rain forest. And it was there too, up on that stage asHollywood rewarded its own, that the roots of The 11th Hour ostensibly took hold. You could almost see it happening as Leo stood next to copresenter Gore and gushed over the former Veep’s planet-saving mission (it would be misleading, however, if at this juncture I didn’t point out that DiCaprio had previously collaborated on two shorts, Global Warning and Water Planet, with Petersen and Conners).

The difference between the two men is nearly symbiotic to the delta in their respective films. Gore is the grizzled vet of many a milieu, having seen the world and garnered the wisdom of age, albeit through the eyes of a politician. DiCaprio too has lived a life through filters¡ªthough his more veiled, having garnered fame and acclaim early when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and later, having risen to pop-icon status atop one of Hollywood’s silliest, most self-important spectacles, Titanic. He may have been on top of the world in 1997, but since then DiCapriohas comfortably settled into Robert De Niro’s former role as alter ego and muse to Martin Scorsese in a trio of psychologically probing films (The AviatorGangs of New York, and The Departed). Gore too has come into his own after reaching near apex under Clinton’s ever-spanning wing. But where Gore is somber, pragmatic, and avuncular, DiCaprio still carries the fire of youth and enough pop appeal to make young girls swoon and, more importantly, recycle their VougueTeen mags. And just by hooking up with Scorsese, he gained instant crossover cred with baby boomers and beyond. Do you know any Scorsese fans who think the venerated director’s body of work ends at Goodfellas? If so, just check the critical (not to mention commercial) reception of The Departed.

The convenient truth, however, is that the two films complement each other. Their broadcasts reach different audiences. One lays out the problem in a calm, methodical fashion, while the other sends out a scrabble alert and provides an exit strategy. In tapping former world leaders and a broad array of academic all-stars, The 11th Hour seeks to draw in more by showing more concern. The impetus is correct, but the net result is watered down. The film is comprised of too many small pieces with t0o few finding a foothold. Still the issues of global warming, carbon emissions, and the greenhouse effect resonate. Anyone who thinks that recycling is a net zero waste of time or that global warming is a myth, is on par with the Iranian President’s denial of the Holocaust. The issue is real and DiCaprio and crew have gone to great pains to make it an immediate imperative. The film implores the viewer to act, but the The 11th Hour concept does not stop at that¡ªthere’s an accompanying website ( that provides a textbook diagnosis of the problem, a digest on the film, and a manual detailing what the individual can do to help reduce man’s toxic footprint on Earth.

Recently President Bush announced a plan for the U.S. to step up its effort to stem global warming, and in Boston, where I live (and bike as a mode of transportation, I’d like to point out), the mayor has threatened to implant a wind turbine in City Hall Plaza to show just how serious he is about making Beantown green. Are these actions tied to Gore and DiCaprio’s flag waving, or just common-sense sensibilities exercised as the molehill has grown into a malignant mountain of sewage and smog?

The answer, akin to The 11th Hour’s modus operandi, is probably a bit of both. If enough people say it, it must matter. The tide is turning. Being green is everywhere now. Hybrids are the new SUVs. Ten, even five years ago, if you drove one, you were a liberal dork; now you’re a conscious consumer saving at the pump and reducing the amount of carbon in the air. Going green is a new economic force, a burgeoning mark with as much potential as Internet porn. Somewhere above, Thoreau must be smiling. It just makes sense.The 11th Hour trumpets the now as “a great time to be alive because this generation gets to essentially completely change the world.” The change is in the air and small efforts do add up, even those by big people in Hollywood.

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