Seeing a Greener Big Screen

'Erin Brockovich' has plenty of company as films increasingly cast polluters as the villain. But businesses call the depictions slanted and say firms do their part for the environment.


When Julia Roberts won an Oscar Sunday for her portrayal of pollution sleuth Erin Brockovich, the triumph was both personal and political.

"Erin Brockovich," based on the true story about a down-on-her-luck file clerk who successfully took on the polluter of a desert town, riveted public attention on chromium contamination in the San Fernando Valley. It helped fuel public outrage that contributed to the so-called Brockovich Bill, which requires state health officials to report water pollution levels to the governor by January 2002.

Although it hit box office pay dirt, "Brockovich" proves that ticket sales are not the only form of green Hollywood has in mind these days.

Buy a pair of admissions, load up on popcorn and hunker down in front of the big screen, and here is what's been playing at a theater near you:

An attorney portrayed by John Travolta who sacrifices everything in an attempt to show how a chemical company allegedly poisoned a Massachusetts town with toxins in "A Civil Action."

An EPA agent played by Steven Seagal tracking down toxic waste dumpers in Appalachia in "Fire Down Below."

An Indian girl named Pocahontas teaching a European newcomer how "every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name" in Disney's animated film.

Movies increasingly warn about the plight of the planet. As art imitates nature, films dealing with the environment are becoming more common and successful.

By no accident, the motion picture industry has adapted new environmental themes to old genres. As the stable of ready villains has shrunk, Hollywood has cast greedy corporations in the bad-guy role once occupied by Communists, space invaders and cowboys wearing black hats. Films about the environment seek to capitalize on public mistrust of big, faceless institutions just as did "The Insider" and "The Fugitive."

Beyond mere entertainment, some Hollywood executives see environmental-themed films as a powerful force for social change. The trend, they said, is the latest manifestation of a tradition in which cinema has been used to instruct on matters ranging from courtship to fashion to patriotism. And as more films are distributed overseas, conservation as a virtue is being extolled to ever greater audiences.

"A lot of the things we learn, we are learning from TV and movies, and people are learning things to help our environment. The idea is to get as many of these messages into the films as possible," said Debbie Levin, executive director of the Environmental Media Assn., which was created by Alan Horn and Norman Lear and their wives in 1989 to mobilize Hollywood on behalf of the environment.

Horn, now president and chief executive officer of Warner Bros., predicts that the trend will last. "We'll be seeing more of these films. The issues are here to stay. This is not a fad."

Many producers, actors and environmentalists believe that the planet is in such desperate condition that it would be unconscionable if Hollywood did not use such a powerful medium to quicken a conservation conscience.

"People need to understand these are pressing problems," said David Irving, chairman of the film and TV program at New York University. "Movies that are even mediocre or hit you over the head are not necessarily a bad thing."

Conservatives Call Films Shallow

But business leaders and political conservatives deride Hollywood's treatment of environmental issues as hypocritical and shallow. Such critics poke fun at how Hollywood decries the loss of natural resources when films glamorize conspicuous consumption, and the entertainment industry is dependent on the largess of advertising firms selling more and more consumer goods. And they argue that movies distort issues as often as they explain them.

"All the public ever sees are Julia Roberts and John Travolta as underdogs going up against big business. The reality is businesses do a lot to improve the environment while trying to promote economic growth and prosperity," said Jeffrey Marks, director of air quality programs for the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

"Nobody sees manufacturers installing air and water devices to reduce pollution. Those actions are not very glamorous, and the public isn't aware the environment has improved tremendously, because of the stereotype perpetuated by the films in Hollywood."

Douglas Kellner, who holds a chair in philosophy of education at UCLA and is coauthor of "Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film," agrees that many of today's films about the environment are militant and anti-corporation.

"They are showing the dangers to the environment due to out-of-control corporations and the need for regulation. It's very political, and there is a Hollywood-left that makes those films," Kellner said. "It sends a warning to corporations: One day, if you mess up, a movie may be made about it. It's a positive effect for the environmental movement."

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