REVIEW: Before the Flood [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: October 21st, 2016 (USA)
Studio: National Geographic
Director(s): Fisher Stevens
Writer(s): Mark Monroe

“It kind of looks like Mordor”

You have to give Leonardo DiCaprio credit because he’s taken his title of UN Messenger of Peace with focus on climate change to heart. He spent three years traveling the world (when not shooting The Revenant in a contextually relevant location experiencing a warm enough winter to necessitate a switch) to visit nations at the root of the problem and those on the frontlines already watching their homes disappear. He’s spoken to scientists, learned how we’ve known about the issue since the 1950s when Bell Laboratories sought alternatives, and discovered just how deep so-called “experts” on the denier side are within fossil fuel’s pocket. I applaud him immensely and yet I can’t help feeling Fisher Stevens‘ document of his journey, Before the Flood, is ostensibly meaningless.

Deniers refuse to believe the science above the shills profiting off cheap energy while fearing the revenues they’ll lose if our government ever follows Scandinavia’s model of sustainability. Stevens even puts some of the backlash from conservative enterprises like Fox News in, only proving that a celebrity face like DiCaprio’s actually pushes detractors further away from the truth. I whole-heartedly believe DiCaprio’s intents are pure with this project, but it’s hard not to look upon it as a vanity piece considering he’s the star and he’s narrating Mark Monroe‘s words despite admitting to be far from an expert. There’s a level of pointed humility to this admission when juxtaposed against deniers without the credentials to say they are, but only those already on his side can notice it.

The film therefore preaches to the choir so to speak. It provides human stories of hardship to those that already want to know what they can do to help and gives the opposition more reason to scoff as Hollywood “pretends” to be more than millionaires guilty of their millions. It’s a real shame because there are some intriguing viewpoints here from India’s Sunita Narain rightfully putting the onus on America to lead the charge and astronaut Piers Sellers presenting some awesome from-space looks at temperature change and gulf streams. National Geographic did a wonderful thing by letting this documentary be viewable for free on multiple platforms because some on the fence may watch and change their tune. Ultimately, though, the people who need to watch it never will.

It’s tough because the information can be amazing and still worthless depending on the vehicle used. Josh Fox‘s How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change is pretty much identical to Before the Flood sans a celebrity mouthpiece and proves more effective for it. There aren’t as many preconceived notions or prejudices with a guy like Fox as opposed to DiCaprio’s constant displays of “awe” and beard-stroking interjections that can be construed as “acting” like he’s listening to what his interviewees have to say. Fox didn’t have the access of his American counterpart to visit Barack Obama or Pope Francis, but he possesses a more everyman appeal to breakthrough some deniers’ hang-ups about international issues they don’t believe concern them.

Looking past DiCaprio sees key messages about influence, social responsibility, and national security—namely that the US and China can pave the way if they acknowledge the bigger picture. I’m not even talking about warming the Earth four degrees or breathing toxic air. I mean looking at the future to see what a switch to renewables could do to the economy. It would cost a lot on the front-end, but be astronomically beneficially on the back. If not for the billions spent by Koch Industries and others to prevent the transition, we might have begun decades ago. So Obama’s remark about national security is important because it may hit conservatives where appealing to humanity couldn’t. If the coasts get flooded, those displaced populations are coming to your backyard.

Smaller but no less paramount issues are also raised whether the reduction of methane emissions from America’s massive beef industry by eating chicken or the idea of implementing a carbon tax to speed up the shift and lower other taxes as a benefit. Elon Musk gets face-time to explain the potential success of his new gigafactory too. People like him are doing what they can to lower the cost of renewables so the government won’t be able to use cost as a deterrent for acceptance. But even I couldn’t help losing a bit of the point when the camera switched back to DiCaprio as documentary MC. Suddenly the film becomes less prestige piece and more cable-run PSA to try and attract young people still susceptible to stardom’s sway.

It’s not his fault. I actually enjoyed his allusions to Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (an interesting choice by his parents to place above his crib) and his pragmatic words addressing the UN. DiCaprio is much less optimistic about our chances than those he talks to with good reason. He understands the uphill battle wholesale change in America remains and acknowledges the dangerous scope of his own carbon footprint. But he shouldn’t be leading the charge here. This needed to be a film about climate change and not Leo’s Global Warming Vacation. That’s not the type of polish we need to convert the willfully ignorant. Sadly, naked facts without celebrity endorsements aren’t either considering our government’s currently staunch stance against seeing what’s irrefutably before their eyes.

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