American naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote of an unexpected encounter with a wolf in his 1948 collection of outdoor essays “A Sand County Almanac.” He instinctively pulled out his rifle and shot the animal. As he stood beside the dying wolf, he saw in her eyes “a fierce green fire.” Her death was a sort of birth for Leopold, the awakening of his ecological consciousness.
The new documentary “A Fierce Green Fire” is a big-picture history of the American environmental movement and its global offshoots. It is a celebration, a critique and a call to action. Watching it, you hope your grandchildren will not be viewing it one day from inside their climate survival pods.
Mark Kitchell’s film ranges from the early conservation era of John Muir, through Rachel Carson’s focus on environmental toxins and regulation in the early 1960s, and the rise of the Sierra Club, but emphasizes iconic moments from the past half-century. This is advocacy filmmaking, if advocating the continued health of our planet warrants that description.
It is less partisan than you might expect. The film approvingly shows the portion of President Richard Nixon’s 1970 State of the Union address dealing with America’s pollution crisis. “Shall we surrender?” he asked. “Or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?” The film reminds us that Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and impelled Congress to draw up the Endangered Species Act. It shows President Obama vacillating over the carbon-limiting Kyoto Protocol in 2009.
Kitchell plods through this worthy material. Where Jeff Orlowski’s Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice” dramatized dying glaciers with compelling you-are-there images, Kitchell trots out the standard array of archival photos, news footage and talking heads. Earnest narrators, including Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Ashley Judd and Isabel Allende, don’t add much excitement.
When Kitchell introduces engaging people on the front lines, the film’s pulse spikes. There’s real drama in the retelling of New York’s Love Canal catastrophe. Lois Gibbs and her fellow housewives took EPA officials hostage to force the government to move their families away from a toxic dump that caused children to be born with extra ears, double rows of teeth, and superfluous fingers.
The tragedy of agriculture organizer Chico Mendes, murdered for rallying rubber-tappers to save Brazil’s Amazon rain forests, hits like a punch in the gut. The ideological split between Greenpeace pacifists and a militant, piratical offshoot that rammed and sabotaged whaling vessels is a gripping yarn. In Kitchell’s presentation, alas, they are brief, rousing sections in a humdrum lecture.