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Movie review: 'Cool It'

Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg's controversial environmental ideas are explored in Ondi Timoner's documentary that's a dose of hope and creativity after the gloom of 'An Inconvenient Truth.'

November 12, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

If Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" left you feeling as if we've already lost the battle against global warming, "Cool It" is a tantalizing counterpoint that will make you wonder if maybe we've just been going about it the wrong way.

Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial Danish economist/political scientist at the center of filmmaker Ondi Timoner's energetic new documentary, doesn't find Gore's truth inconvenient so much as distorted, a position that has made him about as popular as a toxic spill in many circles both left and right.

The film hits that head on, throwing up a lot of footage early to suggest how radical, and how widely attacked, some of Lomborg's theories have been — the most serious leveled (and later overturned) by the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty against his 2001 bestseller, "The Skeptical Environmentalist." The committee's name says it all. Then Timoner proceeds to knock down each critique so she can get back to the business at hand, which is twofold: dismantling conventional wisdom about global warming as preached by Gore, and providing a range of alternative solutions to the energy alternatives we're currently betting the environmental bank on.

Just how inculcated the precepts of filmmaker Davis Guggenheim's Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" have become is laid out in the artwork and answers of a classroom of articulate elementary school kids in Britain that Timoner uses to open the film. Their hand-drawn paintings of an Earth mostly covered by water, dying penguins and massive deserts pretty much sum up the current consensus on the toll of unchecked global warming. Their solutions will sound just as familiar: recycling, carbon offsetting, hybrid cars, a lot of light bulb replacement and, as one puts it, "I pray a lot."

Lomborg isn't suggesting we shouldn't worry, but he does resist what he contends are the fear tactics and overstatements being used to get our attention. He is, after all, a numbers guy, so when he convened a think tank to look at how the $250 billion a year the European Union plans to spend on carbon offsets might be better spent, the group was packed with top economists drawn from around the world. Basically, he argues there are ways to divert some of those funds to address poverty, disease and education without slowing things on the global warming front if we look for ways to spend more wisely. Needless to say, he has a few ideas.

With its follow-the-money mind-set, the documentary works its way through problem and solution many times over, always in a brisk, no-nonsense way. By bringing in a diverse group of big thinkers to take part in a very animated, sometimes agitated, discussion, the filmmaker has succeeded in bringing what could have been a very dry mountain of data, theories and experimental research to vibrant life.

Timoner came to the project a skeptic herself, and that serves the film well. Though the charismatic Lomborg is very much the center of the storm, she lines up an impressive number of experts from the environmental and scientific research community to stand on either side of the divide. Nearly every assertion Lomborg makes is met by a devil's advocate — though the late Stephen Schneider, Nobel winner, MacArthur fellow and long a professor of environmental biology at Stanford University, carries much of that load. Still, there is little doubt from the beginning who will win the final round.

Controversial subjects seem to suit the filmmaker. In her last provocation, 2009's "We Live in Public," Timoner followed the boundary-breaking Internet pioneer Josh Harris as he dissolved personal privacy right before our eyes. Whether her subject sharpened her this time or we would have seen it regardless, "Cool It" is her most sophisticated and satisfying work yet. The narrative, which she wrote with Terry Botwick, keeps surprising, the pacing rarely lags (though we could have done with fewer shots of Lomborg biking to work) and cinematographer Nasar Abich Jr. makes the most of the people and landscapes he captures.

As the story shifts from Lomborg to the scientists experimenting with ways to offset global warming, we get a look at the possibilities. The range of ideas is eclectic, from the practical simplicity of cooling cities by changing the color of the streets to highly complex systems designed to alter atmospheric conditions. By suggesting there is light at the end of the global warming tunnel, Timoner has made "Cool It" a hopeful film. We just have to know where to look for the switch.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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