Film Review: Robert Stone’s ‘Earth Days’

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The early moments of the ambitious new documentary EARTH DAYS, directed by Robert Stone, replay excerpts of environmental warnings and prescriptions of eight presidents, from JFK in 1963 to George W. Bush in 2006. Though the film goes on to braid the stories of nine members of the movement to save Earth from its most destructive inhabitants, those flares of passion ironically sum up our nation’s long U-turn from progress to paralysis. The history that follows, leading to the first Earth Day in 1970 and beyond, is remarkable in many ways, but the string of rhetoric highlights a political process that, despite its victories and potential, too often amounts to fiery talk. It’s a sad reality the pre-title sequence personifies from the outset.

The activists and participants are then introduced, without their names at first, but with labels for their respective eco-roles, as Vanity Fair has done in its green issues of the recent past: The Conservationist (Stewart Udall,) The Futurist (Stewart Brand,) The Forecaster (Dennis Meadows,) The Biologist (Paul Erlich,) The Motivator (Hunter Lovins,) The Politician (Pete McCloskey,) The Organizer (Denis Hayes,) The Radical (Stephanie Mills,) and The Astronaut (Russell Schweickart.)
Interspersed between philosophical musings and personal reminiscences from interviews filmed almost 40 years after the modern environmental movement was born, the movie reviews years of hope, change and resistance. The institutional outcry and ultimate acceptance of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring– her literary cannonball catalyst for action- is covered, as are other pivotal works of social conscience and inter-disciplinary synthesis like The Population Bomb by Erlich, and The Limits to Growth, by Meadows.

There is startling archival footage from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s: kids being sprayed with pesticide (probably DDT)- apparently unfazed- while eating al fresco, technicolor model/housewives bestowing fetishistic displays of marketing affection on household appliances, excessive protesters smashing cars, and nude back-to-the-land-ers cheerfully gardening their plots. These striking visuals are contrasted by somber celebrity calls for action, dour newscasts, and solemn assessments of an unchecked future. Despite the nation’s enthusiastic accumulation of material possessions: The times, they don’t look light-hearted.

In an unfortunate parallel, the interviewees’ delivery is often flat and/or overly-serious, clouding the light of their intelligence and efforts. The idea of structuring the film around nine notable and successful witnesses to environmental history promises a wide view of the movement, but there is little energy to lift the breadth of material and perspectives folded into the 100 minutes, though Brand and Lovins occasionally provide much-needed levity. Starting early in the film, long awkward pauses coupled with uncomfortable-looking interviewees in statuesque poses delay the film from taking off, and set a pace that is sluggish overall.

However, the eldest featured witness/participant- Stewart Udall, former U.S. Representative and Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy and Nixon- invigorates this film most passionately, in a wonderful twist of expectations. He is a bit difficult to understand when off-camera (and subtitles would have been a great help, especially when his dialogue also competes with music,) but he is inspiring throughout, from his excited acknowledgement of Nixon’s role in key victories, to his boiling insistence that the degradation is ongoing. The unraveling of our natural strengths and treasures clearly riles Udall to this day, and will likely rile viewers.

Such passion certainly fueled youth activists’ dedicated efforts to halt the destructive byproducts of progress, but the flow of the stories rarely mirrors that vigor. With memorable exceptions of lively moments- mostly involving Udall, Brand and McCloskey, the movie regrettably brought to mind information-packed lectures that lack the vitality and emotion needed to ignite audience imaginations. There are also technical issues throughout that are nonetheless distracting: the subtitle with Stewart Brand’s name was (no doubt, accidentally) left off the first time he is brought into the film proper- leaving him unidentified for over a half hour to those unfamiliar with his chiseled face; all of the participant’s career-identifying subtitles  are too small and therefore too short-lived for comfortable reading; and much of the generally terrific archival film looks bloated, apparently stretched to fit the display format.

Still, about half-way through EARTH DAYS, an evocative sequence suddenly lifts the film to an almost ethereal we-are-one experience. These lyrical minutes focus on astronaut Rusty Schweickart’s Apollo 9 lunar orbit and space walk, and that exploration’s role in his deepened sense of place in the universe. The chasms of space and four decades’ time feel narrow and short as we see Schweickart float in space- in stark contrast to images of the gorgeous blue planet below- and hear him poetically impart in voice over: “…  So the idea of the phrase Mother Earth has real meaning. …The child now sees its mother.”

Here the medium’s currencies- visuals, music, voice and sound effects- are deftly woven to deliver an emotionally resonant dividend that adds dimension and charm to the facts of the mission. Although he was not one of the key architects of the environmental movement, the inclusion of Schweickart’s space story was an artful choice that elevates the viewing experience and film.

It was disappointing to feel few inspiring moments in EARTH DAYS, but it is only fair to note that creating them is an inherent challenge of the historical documentary. Films in this sub-genre are often constructed as tic-tac-toe-like maneuvers of talking heads, archival footage, and voice over narration, with music left to do the heavy emotional lifting. Another contributing factor to this recurring problem is that the history- however interesting- has already unfolded, and the players have in many cases answered similar questions numerous times. 

Further, to sustain oomph and interest, a wealth of material with dynamic personalities is required, though not always practical or affordable, and capturing the lightning moments can be like capturing lightning itself. One can choose among, but not re-cast the actual participants in history. And however much talking goes on in front of cameras, the camera’s presence causes many people’s discomfort or, almost as problematic, fails to spark their most animated selves. Only so much weight can be skimmed from stilted interviews.

Yet revelation and freshness are critical elements of memorable documentaries that can effectively reach beyond the boundaries of the already-interested. There are surely stand-outs; The Fog of War, for one, comes to mind.  It is stylistically inventive, if somewhat jarring, and by digging deep into a conflicted man’s role in a controversial war, the film builds steadily in emotional and intellectual complexity.  While many historical subjects also bear such digging, EARTH DAYS assumes as a given that all the tellers of the tales are straight-up, and the efforts, if sometimes naïve, were for the good. It’s a viewpoint I do not dispute, and many people who will see the film will likely be “believers,” but such a set-up does not always make for compelling storytelling on film.