It’s proven difficult to create entertaining documentaries about climate change, but if anyone could bring out another “Inconvenient Truth” or “Climate of Doubt,” you’d think it would be Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio.
Unfortunately, despite a handsome Oscar winner and the greatest of intentions, “Before the Flood” falls prey to its own urgency, with the result that even the recitation of simple facts somehow comes off as alarmist rhetoric — if the audience is not terrified enough by climate change, grim scare tactics are unlikely to do much to shift them.
“I am not a scientist, but I don’t need to be,” DiCaprio says in the film’s voiceover. “Because the world’s scientific community has spoken, and they have given us our prognosis: If we do not act together, we will surely perish.” We’re not scientists either, but yelling at us like unwashed heathens to get in line doesn’t exactly seem like the most practical approach to change course.
Directed by Fisher Stevens and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the documentary shows DiCaprio traveling the world over a two-year period to discuss climate change with everyone from Pope Francis to President Barack Obama to entrepreneur Elon Musk. He travels to China, Greenland and India. DiCaprio talks about the effects of energy use with environmentalists studying the floods in Miami, Fla., and the scientists continually watching the Arctic glaciers melt.
The goal of “Before the Flood” is to inform the public of what’s happening to our planet, and what we can do to prevent it from becoming a total wasteland. But even with the amount of star power attached, the doc doesn’t quite reach its goals. The sweeping views of Earth, seeing the rushing waterfalls in the glaciers, and the massive land mines being used to farm fossil fuel are sobering scenes to watch — it’s compelling and well-made.
The most particularly moving conversation happens when the topic of America practicing what they preach is broached: If the United States doesn’t stand as an example of how to conserve energy, how can it expect other countries to follow their so-called initiative?
It’s a confusing exceptionalism that is increasingly hard to understand, much less ignore — just as it’s difficult hearing DiCaprio speak about the horrifying effects of carbon footprint when the activist himself is constantly traveling on private jets, throwing yacht parties, and owns sprawling homes in Hollywood, Palm Springs, and two apartments in New York City.
The doc doesn’t hide DiCaprio’s lavish lifestyle, and he openly admits that his carbon footprint is larger than most, but the film tries to split the difference in a strange and not entirely convincing way: An average dude, your everyday bajillionaire, who learned what was happening with the environment, and was consumed by the idea of using what he has to help save the world. It’s what any noble human being would do, if he or she were informed with all the facts, right?
And that’s where DiCaprio’s passion to make and distribute this film was born: This very Silicon Valley sense that if you just understood what I was saying, you would follow my orders to a T. That the many, many factors inhibiting people below the poverty line from giving a damn about the environment have not been Leo’s concern for a long time, and therefore are hardly a concern. That if you would just accept the gift of this wisdom, or at least let me scare you to death, somehow you’d come up with more time in your day and more money in your pocket to change everything about the way you live, eat, work, drive, heat your home and care for your children.
What Leo never gets close to exploring is how the same systems that keep people in poverty are the ones that are killing the planet — that the mechanisms of global pollution, climate change and corporate waste are what the vast majority of us live in, and under, and they control a lot more than just carbon emissions. That we’re bought and paid for by the very interests that can weigh our planet’s future in one hand against their profits in the other, and toss a few hundred thousand bucks Leo’s way to make that nagging guilt go away. It isn’t just institutionalized apathy he’s fighting, it’s the inertia of these institutions themselves. And a documentary about that… probably won’t be made by the kind of companies that can afford to fly Leonardo DiCaprio to the North Pole and back for a helpful and educational day’s jaunt.
Maybe it’s just bad timing, but it’s difficult to fully trust DiCaprio in this everyday hero role anyway: He’s currently embroiled in an embezzlement scandal in which he’s been asked to step down from his two-year role as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. The Hollywood Reporter states that the Department of Justice is currently investigating a complaint from Bruno Manser Funds, a Swiss rainforest charity, that claims $238 million were misappropriated from Malaysia’s 1MDB charity to fund DiCaprio’s 2013 film, “The Wolf of Wall Street” — whose production company, Red Granite Films, was co-founded by Riza Aziz… the stepson of the Malaysian prime minister. It’s a tangled and touchy subject, but one that relates, again, directly to the rarefied and corporatized space DiCaprio wishes he were fighting against.
So with a host who admits to not fully walking the walk, and the way the documentary slows to a drone at times, it’s easy to forget DiCaprio and the film’s hearts are in the right place. Leonardo DiCaprio cannot save the world on his own. Everyone needs to find a way to take these issues seriously, and that stands as the documentary’s most important takeaway message. Whether it’s using less fossil fuel, making coal-produced electricity widely available, encouraging others to eat a more vegetarian focused diet, or wresting our governance from the profit-minded companies that have usurped it: “The world is now watching,” as DiCaprio announces to the U.N. in the film. “You are the last, best hope of Earth — or you, and all of the things we cherish, are history.”
“Before the Flood” premiered on Showtime, opened to select theaters in October 2016, and made its basic cable debut Sunday, Oct. 30, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic.
The full movie is also now available to watch on YouTube.