'How to Change the World': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A sleekly packaged documentary with a tendency to simplify history to heighten the drama.

Jerry Rothwell's documentary about the birth of Greenpeace features a lot of rarely seen 16mm footage from the early days.

With its recent, controversial actions near the Nazca lines in Peru to again demand attention for climate change, Greenpeace managed to prove once again that it both has a knack for getting the world’s attention and that the environmental group’s actions aren’t without danger or a certain lack of internal coordination or controversy. Indeed, in his documentary How to Change the World, which chronicles the painful and frequently messy birth of the world’s most famous ecological organization, writer-director Jerry Rothwell (Town of Runners, Deep Water) suggests that nothing much has changed in the over four decades since the group’s creation.

Though dramatically unbalanced and with a tendency to simplify history to heighten the drama, this sleekly packaged origins story, which features short animated interludes, period-appropriate music and a lot of rarely seen 16mm footage from the early days, should travel to both general and documentary festivals, with day-and-date niche theatrical and VOD releases likely in at least a handful of territories for this U.K.-Canada co-production.

Greenpeace was born in flower power-era Vancouver, where in the late 1960s and early 1970s a few men (and ever fewer women) decided they needed to take a stand against underground nuclear testing in Alaska. A ragtag group of people got together to charter a Canadian ship and try to get to Amchitka, the U.S. island where the Nixon administration decided the bomb would be tested. They included Paul Watson, a hotheaded, 19-year-old sailor, Patrick Moore, a “psychedelic scientist,” and Bob Hunter, an enterprising young journalist with the Vancouver Sun who would become the group’s de facto leader — at least according to this documentary.

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Rothwell’s opening streamlines (simplifies might be a better term) many of the early events so it can concentrate on the talking heads it has available, which include several of the early Greenpeace members, such as Moore and Watson, who are interviewed, and Hunter, who died in 2005 of cancer but is present through a voice-over from actor Barry Pepper, who reads from Hunter’s written recollections of events (the film’s "based on the writings" of the group’s early leader, though the screenplay is credited to Rothwell). However, there’s practically no mention of the movement’s early ties to the Sierra Club Canada, the earlier Don’t Make a Wave committee that was essentially Greenpeace in embryonic form or the fundraising concert needed to finance their first endeavor and some of the other founders, such as the late Jim Bohlen and Irving Stowe are barely mentioned, if it all.

Though this means the film’s not exactly thorough, it does make the early going very snappy and more dramatic, with the film almost immediately zeroing in on the Watson-Moore-Hunter triangle, with Hunter emerging as the group’s natural leader. As one of the interviewees suggests, he was not necessarily someone with great organizational skills -- something that would become a problem when the organization grew in the following years -- but he was a visionary and was able to inspire others and bring them together. In Rothwell’s version of events, this also means that when the journalist-turned-activist wasn’t around, such as during an ill-fated week when he got off Greenpeace’s first vessel to do interviews on land, that Watson and Moore both aggressively jockeyed for the second-in-command role, something neither of them denies, with both still passionate defenders of their own actions forty-odd years later. 

Using a lot of the organization’s own, little-seen archival material, including 16mm footage shot by Ron Precious and photographs by Rex Weyler, both supporting players here, How to Change the World initially focuses on the group’s first sea expedition to try and get to Amchitka as winter approaches. This was of course a risky operation, with John Cormack, the captain and owner of the vessel, the only one with any seafaring experience when they set out. He also provided the necessary (if entirely crazy) willingness to take his non-insured ship close to the site of a nuclear explosion, with no clear idea of what the consequences could be. This kind of adventurous recklessness has been part of Greenpeace’s m.o. from the start. "Bob recognized that it’s easier to change the world with a camera than with a gun," explains one of the interviewees and it’s fascinating to see how the idea of "media mind bombs" and pre-Internet viral sensations were essentially invented by these eco-warriors so they could draw attention to their causes.

Some of the group’s subsequent and equally mediagenic activities, such as actions against Soviet whalers off the coast of California and ruthless seal hunters in Canada, are equally well-documented here. However, the protests against French nuclear tests at Mururoa, which followed right after the Amchitka action, aren’t featured and there’s a sense that either Rothwell didn’t have the right footage to highlight the budding organization’s work there or he preferred to concentrate on the group’s increasing inner tensions that were more visible during other operations, most notably after going after the seal hunters, which would finally lead to Watson being ousted in 1977. The film thus finds itself in a constant and uneasy split between documenting the group's early days and achievements and painting a picture of the personal behind-the-scenes dramas that plagued and jeopardized it.

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Editor James Scott keeps things punchy in many individual scenes but overall the rhythm is uneven and the film takes too long to really get going before it gets to the more interesting personal dynamics. For those unaware of what happened to some of the original members, the revelation that Moore has since turned into a pro-nuclear, global warming-denying consultant for major companies comes as a major curveball and makes one wonder why he agreed to be interviewed for the film in the first place, since he gets so little time in the tail end of the documentary to explain his current, rather divergent ideas. 

Technically, the film is otherwise smooth.

Production companies: Met Film, Insight Productions, BFI, Sky, Bell

Writer-Director: Jerry Rothwell

Producers: Al Morrow, Bous de Jong

Executive producers:

Director of photography: Ben Lichty

Editor: James Scott

Art director: Andrew Kinsella

Music: Lesley Barber

Sales: Submarine Entertainment/Dogwoof

No rating, 113 minutes

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