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Yeah, yeah, yeah, the environment, blah, blah, blah, melting ice caps. To judge from all the gas-guzzlers still fouling the air and the plastic bottles clogging the dumps, it appears that the news that we are killing ourselves and the world with our greed and garbage hasn’t sunk in. That’s one reason “The 11th Hour,” an unnerving, surprisingly affecting documentary about our environmental calamity, is such essential viewing. It may not change your life, but it may inspire you to recycle that old slogan-button your folks pinned on their dashikis back in the day: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
The problem looks overwhelming, literally, as demonstrated by the images of overflowing landfills and sickeningly polluted bodies of water that flicker through the movie like damning evidence. Structured in mainstream fiction-film fashion (in other words, like a term paper), it opens with an introduction that presents the case, builds momentum with an absorbing analytical middle section and wraps up with just enough optimism that I didn’t want to run home and stick my head in an energy-efficient oven. No matter how well intentioned, political documentaries that present problems without real-life, real-time, real-people solutions — an 800 number, an address, something — just add to the noise (pollution), becoming another title on some filmmaker’s résumé as well as a temporary salve for the audience’s guilt.
Written and directed by the sisters Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, and narrated on- and off-camera by Leonardo DiCaprio, who served as one of the producers, “The 11th Hour” attempts to stave off helplessness, and the nihilism that often follows it, mostly by appealing to our reason.
In one interview snippet after another, dozens of scientists, activists, gurus, policy types and even a magical-mushroom guy go through the arguments, present the data and criticize the anti-green faction, putting words to the images that are liberally interspersed between these talking heads like mortar. Every so often, Mr. DiCaprio pops up on screen to interrupt this show and tell, squinting into the camera and pushing the narrative to the next topic.
If your head isn’t lodged in the sand, much of what’s said in the movie will be agonizing and familiar. Gasping children, disappearing animals, gushing oil, billowing smoke, dying lakes, emptying forests, warming weather — the list of ills is numbingly familiar. In the movie’s eye-catching opener, the directors riffle through a veritable catalog of timely snapshots, some obvious (a smoggy skyline), others less so (a human fetus).
Effectively blunt, this sequence provoked a colleague to invoke the name of the avant-garde giant Stan Brakhage, but the truer visual and structural model here is a film like “Koyaanisqatsi,” with its streaming global landscapes. The difference is that the images in “The 11th Hour” are pointedly horrifying, not reassuring, pacific or aestheticized.
That can make it tough to watch, which the directors clearly know. They whip through the pictures and the interviews fast — at times a little too fast — and keep the information flowing as quickly as the visuals. This swift, steady pace means that you receive a lot of bad news from a lot of different sources. The ecologist Brock Dolman explains, “When we started feeding off the fossil fuel cycle, we began living with a death-based cycle.” From there the topic nimbly jumps to climate change, national security (courtesy the former director of the C.I.A., R. James Woolsey), Katrina, asthma and the stunning news from the oceanographer and author Sylvia Earle that “we’ve lost 90 percent of most of the big fish in the sea.”
Yes, it’s bad, but it’s not over yet. Many of those same sober talking heads also argue with equal passion that we can save ourselves, along with the sky above us and the earth below. The capacity for human beings to fight, to rise to the occasion, as Mr. Woolsey notes, invoking America’s rapid, albeit delayed jump into World War II, gives hope where none might seem possible.
It is our astonishing capacity for hope that distinguishes “The 11th Hour” and that speaks so powerfully, in part because it is this all-too-human quality that may finally force us to fight the good fight against the damage we have done and continue to do. As the saying goes, keep hope alive — and if you’re holding this review in your hands, don’t forget to recycle the paper.
“The 11th Hour” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has freakily scary environmental images.
THE 11TH HOUR
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners; narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio; directors of photography, Peter Youngblood Hills and Andrew Rowlands; edited by Pietro Scalia and Luis Alvarez y Alvarez; music by Jean-Pascal Beintus and Eric Avery; production designer, Ms. Conners; produced by Mr. DiCaprio, Ms. Petersen, Chuck Castleberry and Brian Gerber; released by Warner Independent Pictures. Running time: 91 minutes.