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Beyond 'Truth'

'The 11th Hour' shows environmental damage beyond global warming. But it ends with action and hope.

August 17, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

IT would be a mistake to dismiss the valuable environmental documentary "The 11th Hour" as a mere redux of "An Inconvenient Truth." Whereas the 2006 Al Gore-starring film, which won an Academy Award for best documentary, focused intensely on global warming, "The 11th Hour" takes a broader approach in examining Earth's ills.

Though it has its own hands-on celebrity producer-narrator, Leonardo DiCaprio, who acts more as a guide, posing questions and introducing segments, the film forges an authoritative voice through a collective of experts representing relevant fields. And although climate change gets attention (seven minutes by the filmmakers' estimate), "The 11th Hour" primarily attempts to describe a critical time in the Earth's evolution, the last moment we as a species can theoretically make a difference. Through social, economic and political lenses, the film presents a harrowing account of the planet's current condition, an exploration of the causes and, finally, a look at what can be done in the near future to heal the damage.

In describing the impact on the planet's ecosystems attributed to industrialized society, writer-directors (and sisters) Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners marry images of natural beauty with natural disasters, stressing exactly how unnatural many of these catastrophes are. Scientists, environmentalists, authors, academics and activists weigh in on topics that go well beyond global warming in examining the scale of the footprint humanity has made.

It is unabashedly a documentary of talking heads, but it works. The most recognizable of those heads belong to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and R. James Woolsey, director of the CIA under President Bill Clinton, but the majority of the densely packed film's time is spent with those on the front lines of environmental study.

Eco-activist and Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel, writer Thom Hartmann, entrepreneur Paul Hawken, sustainable-agriculture proponent Wes Jackson and Canadian scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki are among those who get the most face time. The mélange of voices is coherently edited within segments that hold to a particular theme, each tied to the film's overarching ideas. DiCaprio, a longtime advocate of environmental reform, is sincere and passionate in his introductory remarks to each sequence.

The concentration of all this information into an hour and a half makes it more likely to reach a large audience, but it also leaves you wanting more. Hours could be devoted to any one of the film's subjects, and it's easy to imagine it expanded into a much longer television series.

The first third of the film is nearly as terrifying as any science-fiction film as interviewees describe the Earth as behaving like an infected organism. Humanity is a victim of its own collective intelligence as the very skills that abetted our survival against initially long odds have accelerated our possible demise.

According to the filmmakers, at the heart of the problem is our disconnect from nature, the idea that we are somehow removed from our natural environment. This lack of understanding of the Earth's interdependent systems has created a convergence of crises, wherein deforestation, soil degradation, the pollution of the air and the ill health of the oceans all bode poorly.

The middle portion asks why these things are happening and apportions blame in varying degrees to governmental indifference tied to its allegiance to a corporate economy that is addicted to growth at any cost and perhaps, most insinuating of all, to the culture of consumerism. Disposable has trumped sustainable in our society, and we're now paying the price.

Thankfully for audiences, "11th Hour" is not without hope. The filmmakers save the most exhilarating portion for last when they ask what's being done about the problems. Experts extol existing technologies and projects as attainable solutions. Progressive designs such as a carbon-neutral city and self-sustaining buildings already offer ideas for a new direction. By mimicking nature's own blueprints, it is possible to create a system of living that heals rather than depletes the Earth.

"The 11th Hour." MPAA rating: PG for some mild disturbing images and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8233.

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