Film Review: Earth Days

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PARK CITY -- Many of the documentaries in this year's Sundance Film Festival -- including "Crude," "The Cove" and "The End of the Line" -- raised serious environmental concerns. So it seems fitting that the festival's closing-night movie, "Earth Days," provides a sweeping history of the environmental movement. This picture was produced for public television, where it will eventually be well received when it airs in 2010. But it has less of a future in the theatrical market. Documentaries are a hard sell these days, and despite the timely, pertinent subject, the film simply doesn't have enough entertainment value to draw an audience to the multiplex.

Director Robert Stone has chosen to focus the film around nine pioneers in the environmental movement, including former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, biologist and author Paul Ehrlich, Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes and astronaut Rusty Schweickart. They all testify about their personal experience and offer their perspective on the environment. But Stone misses an opportunity by failing to plumb the personal dramas of these people's lives.

"Earth Days" traces the modern environmental movement to the publication of Rachel Carson's landmark book, "Silent Spring." But when the film mentions in passing that Carson was suffering from cancer when she wrote the book, we yearn to learn more about the personal anguish that must have informed her best-selling tome. Similarly, there is a reference at one point to Schweickart as an "astronaut hippie." However, the film never identifies the idiosyncrasies that led to that intriguing label. In some of the newsreel footage from the 1960s and '70s, Hayes seems like a vibrant personality, and in the discussion following the premiere screening, he confirmed that impression. But the film doesn't give him or any of the other witnesses enough of a chance to come alive.

Perhaps Stone feared that too much colorful detail would undermine the seriousness of his theme. The unfortunate result is that the film ends up on the dry side, with the deadly feel of an educational film.

On the plus side, some of the photography of the natural wonders under siege is spectacular, and Stone has incorporated some valuable historical footage. "Earth Days" provides a thoughtful overview, but we are a bit spoiled after seeing some truly scintillating documentaries in recent years. This is a throwback to the more earnest dissertations of an earlier era. To be blunt, it needs more pizzazz to grab a restless audience's attention.

Production: American Experience Films, WGBH
Director-producer: Robert Stone
Executive producer: Mark Samels
Director of photography: Howard Shack
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editor: Don Kleszy
No rating, 101 minutes