'Before the Flood': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Before the Flood - Still 1 - H - 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
A well-intentioned eco-doc whose star is its main selling point.

Leonardo DiCaprio travels the world exploring climate change in 'Before the Flood.'

The mob was excited outside the Princess of Wales premiere of Fisher Stevens's Before the Flood, chanting "Lee-oh! Lee-oh!" as star Leonardo DiCaprio walked the red carpet. Fans were packed inside as well, whooooo!-ing as he spoke thoughtfully about the need for action addressing climate change.

But how much effect can celebrity have on the world's fossil-fuel addiction? Almost a decade ago, DiCaprio narrated and produced The 11th Hour, which covered the same ground as this film. It didn't save the world. God bless him for keeping at it, but one fears the star would have to tour the nation appearing personally at each screening to get people excited to see this noble rehash of things everyone who cares already knows; even then, one wonders what impact it would have.

Fisher's new film is significantly better than 11th Hour. And while those of us who've seen dozens of similar docs could name plenty that taught or moved or enraged us more, Flood's filmmakers are intelligent in their use of the biggest asset they have: Not only do they keep their movie star onscreen, they work hard to tie viewers' concern for the environment up with his biography. Mark Monroe's screenplay uses what DiCaprio claims are his earliest memories, of a poster of Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," as a frame for humanity's reckless overconsumption of Earth's resources; the film offers flashbacks to his early encounters with environmentalism. DiCaprio was taught about global warming by Al Gore in the White House in his early 20s; he spoke at Earth Day in 2000; he went on Oprah to promote energy-efficient light bulbs. That last campaign seems naive to him now: too-little, too-late.

Still, for his efforts, the United Nations designated DiCaprio a "U.N. Messenger of Peace" in 2014, and tasked him with getting the word out on climate change. He recruited Stevens to tour the world and do just that.

So we go on a brisk tour of Climate Change's Greatest Hits: DiCaprio flies over Canadian oil sands, walks on melting ice in the Arctic Circle, sees the devastation of Sumatran forests where cheap palm oil is harvested for use in everything from fast food to cosmetics. He listens attentively as a Harvard economist (favored by Republicans!) insists we have to have a carbon tax; he looks at NASA models of ocean currents; he politely demurs when an activist in India complains about American consumption. DiCaprio, who elsewhere admits that "my footprint is probably a lot bigger than most people's" ("probably"?), argues that Americans aren't really likely to cut back on their energy consumption. Shouldn't we just all focus on shifting to 100 percent renewable energy and enjoy the lifestyles we have?

Eager to hit all the required bases while making time to exploit the special access DiCaprio can get (John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis all sit down with him — well, the president just paces briefly outside the White House), the movie never digs deep on anything. By contrast, DiCaprio was an exec-producer on Shalini Kantayya's recent doc Catching the Sun, which, whatever its faults, spent its entire running time looking at entrepreneurs and activists trying to build viable businesses around solar energy.

So many climate docs have passed through cinemas and aired on TV, it's impossible to believe that lack of information is the obstacle to change in public policy. In the opinion of one interviewee here, who cites President Obama's evolving attitude toward gay marriage, what we really need is a change in polling data. Maybe movie stars can sway public opinion more effectively than tightly reasoned activist docs full of hard data and compelling narratives. Here's hoping.

Production company: Appian Way

Distributor: National Geographic

Director: Fisher Stevens

Screenwriter: Mark Monroe

Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Fisher Stevens, Trevor Davidoski, Jennifer Davisson, Brett Ratner, James Packer

Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Adam Bardach, Mark Monroe, Zara Duffy

Director of photography: Antonio Rossi

Editors: Geoffrey Richman, Ben Sozanski, Abhay Sofsky, Brett Banks

Composers: Mogwai, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaolalla

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)


95 minutes