Years of Living Dangerously: TV Review

Years of Living Dangerously Harrison Ford - H 2014

Years of Living Dangerously Harrison Ford - H 2014

An expertly approached, lavish and compelling documentary that presents its evidence through an inclusive and conversational tone, creating the right delivery for its urgently conveyed message.

Showtime's production, executive produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, does everything it can to illustrate climate change from all angles, employing environmental advocates Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle, Ian Somerhalder and many others to its cause.

According to Andrew Farley, the discussion of climate change has "become a ball of sound bites, and people can't parse it out." Farley is a Texan, an Evangelical Christian preacher and the husband of Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of the country's leading scientists on climate change. She also is a devout Christian, and doesn't see an issue reconciling science and faith: "God is in control, but he's given us choices, and [climate change is] the consequence of those choices."

Showtime's powerful nine-part documentary series Years of Living Dangerously aims to be much more than a ball of sound bites, while still acknowledging the role they play. When it comes to climate change, the causative connection between politics and business is clear -- but so is the power of media, as evidenced by the documentary's star-studded cast and production team. In its first episode, religion also plays a large part in the story, because in the U.S, of course, religion and politics are inextricably linked. It has become, as Farley suggests, a mess.

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Just like Hayhoe believes science and faith do not have to be at odds, Republican and former Calif. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger believes politics and climate change can be reconciled across the aisle. He also narrates a segment in the second episode about Hot Shot firefighters in Montana, where wildfires have gone from having a season to being a year-long event. Years of Living Dangerously uses the recognizable names and faces of actors like Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle and Ian Somerhalder, as well as journalists like the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, to bring attention to its message. But while it may draw a dismissal and criticism from some, the documentary deserves commendation for inserting its stars into the fray, operating at the ground level to get stories here and across the world in order to build a compelling case for the catastrophic nature of rising global temperatures -- though indeed including, occasionally, their own crusades.

Ford in particular has one of the most engrossing journeys of the series. Traveling through Indonesia, whose deforestation practices are some of the worst offenders of carbon emission pollution, he becomes increasingly and visibly frustrated with the country's government, and in particular, the Minister of Forestry. When Ford confronts him and, later, Indonesia's president, with great press fanfare, Years of Living Dangerously shows how important the media truly is in what's next regarding climate change. The celebrity factor opens doors and creates attention. In more cynical terms: If no one is willing to listen to scientists, maybe they're willing to listen to Indiana Jones. 

Years of Living Dangerously is a lavish production that uses an intimate style of direction. The actors and those they interview are almost always shot in close-ups and in confined settings (inside of vans, offices with ambient lighting, homes with cramped quarters). Even objects are examined with measured scrutiny: leaves crackling with fire, doors unlocking, the sandwiches the firefighters eat. The suggestion is that this is a global issue that affects the personal, even the smallest aspects. The filtered lighting used for each location also helps to tell its story -- Texas is in sepia tones, accenting its dryness, while Indonesia and Syria are stripped of almost all color.

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The intimate tone is carried throughout the interviews by Ford, Cheadle and others, who are casual and conversational, and usually not confrontational (Ford is an exception, and a well-placed one). The actors are passionate, but not experts. They let the scientists, the workers, the officials and others tell their stories. It's part of Years of Living Dangerously's refreshing and inclusive tone: it's not important how one gets to this point of understanding the issues, but simply that one does. 

An urgent soundtrack and litany of distressing facts flood each of the documentary's first two hours, approaching issues of climate change from all angles. Complementing the global-but-personal nature of its visuals, segments focus on something as large as a forest fire, and then something as small as a mountain beetle, whose expanded habitat, viewers are told, has caused more forest loss in the western U.S. than all of the fires in the last 10 years. This is then juxtaposed with the loss of wildlife habitat in Indonesia, where villagers were rewarded for killing orangutans. The systemic nature of the problem is made clear.

"This isn't America," Indonesia's minister of forestry says, to explain the corruption. But the U.S. is not free of these issues. In another example, there's the problematic production of palm oil, which is found in almost every product on grocery store shelves, from processed foods to home and personal care products. Years of Living Dangerously always brings its point back to America, illustrating interconnectedness, and calling out many "we're going green" press releases from companies as being meaningless PR, showing a savvy acknowledgement, again, of media influence. 

Years of Living Dangerously (whose first episode is currently available on YouTube) presents evidence about how climate is affecting situations around the world, like the drought that potentially sowed the seeds for Syrian civil war. It's all compelling and, frankly, terrifying, which makes it successful in its mission. But is it preaching to the choir, or creating converts? The documentary does an excellent job of being simple and clear without being arrogant, and its convergence of science, politics, religion and industry proves its ultimate point. Though it casts a harsh light on the consequence of our choices (to paraphrase Hayhoe), Years of Living Dangerously also shows that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of these consequences, however inconvenient, and the partnerships required to rebuild.