The girls and I went to the U.S. premiere of HBO’s Ice on Fire. This documentary, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, and directed by Leila Conners with cinematography by (full disclosure time) my friend Harun Mehmedinović. It begins with DiCaprio narrating our state of existence and the precipice of disaster we are racing towards. He does not fall into the trap of sounding like a fire and brimstone preacher or some political pundit who thinks ranting at volume 11 makes up for a lack of valid evidence. His speech has a cadence and authority that makes you listen as if you are listening to a trained first responder who keeps their cool during an emergency and not just because he’s Leonardo DiCaprio.
After this, we fly to 11,000 feet into the Colorado Rockies to an air sampling station. This made me smile. I’d seen this kind of research done firsthand at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The NOAA Corps calls the lab upwind of the station Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO, pronounced arrow). Stretching into the wind is the clean air sector where access by ski, vehicle, and aircraft is strictly limited. The sampling is so precise they can tell if one person has been in front of the station because the person’s exhalations change the air enough to be detected. Much like the scientists I knew at the South Pole, these scientists talk with clarity and present their knowledge in ways the lay-person can understand. The scientists are filmed either out in the field or in their labs in their work-a-day clothes so they seem not in some far-off ivory tower, but as someone you’d bump into at the supermarket. They talk and act with the gravitas of people who are committed to their work that either spans decades or is built upon work spanning decades. We are taking part in a conversation and learning something important divorced from political hyperbole.
Ice on Fire continues with the science and how we irrefutably know climate disruption is caused by burning fossil fuels. This is where the film pivots away from what could be a long litany of evidence to the swan song of humanity. We have to ask what good is it to collect this information to tell us we are bringing on a global catastrophe? “What good amid these, O me, O life?” to quote Walt Whitman. It all adds up, though.
We don’t get the decades of evidence only to show us we’re headed for extinction. It’s a jumping off point into the research currently underway to mitigate the worse aspects of climate disruption and in this film, we finally get a glimpse into that world. We discover practical solutions unfolding right now, from a Connecticut fisherman, a rancher from New Mexico, entrepreneurs and scientists from Iceland, Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, urban gardeners in Los Angeles, and others. The solutions are as diverse as the people tackling the problem and ranges from generating clean energy, taking carbon out of the environment and sequestering it, or capturing it and repurposing it to our benefit. It’s not a film that shakes its finger at you, telling you to recycle, turn out the lights, turn down the heat on the thermostat, walk instead of drive or the myriads of small things we already know we should be doing, but also seem pointless in the face of global disaster. It’s a film of big solutions at work and for a profit. The economic boon of the new energy economy promises to be bigger than any we’ve seen, while slowing and reversing the worst nightmares of climate disruption. It isn’t a film that leaves the viewer feeling overwhelmed with despair, but gives hope our creativity and ingenuity can be wielded to overcome this challenge.
At the same moment, it is a cautionary tale. It is a story still in the telling, one of a people in denial who worked to suppress the science, tried to stop researchers from finding solutions, and used propaganda and misinformation to sway public opinion. We are engaged with the thought these actions are crimes against humanity. What can it be when we are faced with the prospect of bearing witness to the collapse of civilizations, wide spread famine, wars, disease, displacement of entire populations, and death on a scale not seen in tens of millions of years so some can make money for a few extra years? Indeed, “What good amid these?” Some environmentalists from the all-or-nothing faction of immediately banning fossil fuels will take issue the film doesn’t take a more strident tone. The film does criticize the industry and holds them to account, but none of solutions call for discontinuing the use of fossil fuels right away as opposed to phasing them out or managing the carbon. This is refreshing. In regards to narrative, it was noted by Joyce Carol Oates that very few preachy essays survive their era because many people tune out when being preached at. Oates went on to say, and I paraphrase, we go to church to be preached to, but we know what we are getting into when we go. Ironically, by not taking an extreme ideological stance, the film might motivate a greater number of people to action who want realistic solutions implemented now and investment opportunities paying financial and moral dividends. This helps make the film revelatory and not just another polemic only appealing to the faithful and alienating everyone else.
Whitman tells us hope is “That life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” We can turn ourselves around with a thought at how miraculous all this is and what we stand to lose. Connor weaves Mehmedinović’s footage into a tapestry of stunning landscapes spliced with footage of coal fired power plants belching smoke into the air, storms ravaging communities, and the wasteland of catastrophic wildfires, animals and plants on the verge of extinction, and people hard at work trying to solve the problem. The time lapses and drone footage all serve the story, but we don’t only get the cinematic juxtapositions of nature vs industry or nature vs humankind or ideologue vs ideologue.
We see a desert in the American southwest. Its beauty and starkness feel a place of clean air where a person can live as far away from the toxins of industry as possible. A rancher stands next an industrial machine no bigger than trailerable generator. The machine is for collecting gas. The scene changes in texture. The rancher appears as a silvery ghost in the haze surrounding him like we’ve seen in infrared footage from attack helicopters. What appears to be silver and black heat waves shimmer around the machine and around the cowboy. We can make out his form, the mustache on his face, and the shape of his hat, but we cannot recognize the details of his face. The scene changes and he is normal looking and the air is blue sky clear. The machine looks as if it isn’t even working. The scene flips back and forth from normal to this other faceless way of seeing as he talks about his ranch, his family, and the equipment oil and gas companies have deposited across the region. The heat waves all around him is methane gas leaking from the machine for the want of pipe tape and a wrench. Through the use of a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera, Mehmedinović has captured the center of an invisible ghost world, a methane cloud the size of Delaware looms over the Four Corners region, a miasma as clear as a lobbyist’s conscience. John Berger said to look at the absences and presences in images presented to us. Here we are shown what is present with special equipment to shoot it. What absence is it invoking now that the invisible was rendered visible is left for us to consider. The infrared rancher, as if a leaden golem against a leaden sky roiling in currents of gas, talks about his children and how it’s not okay to poison them. The rancher stops talking and the camera lingers on him, a portent. This is a fine example of how cinematography tells a symbolic story parallel to the story we’re being told, reinforcing it.
Ice on Fire resists cynicism and works against dread even as scientists punch holes in the ice of an Alaskan lake and light the escaping methane from the thawing permafrost on fire. The film also doesn’t give any airtime to the trite spiels of climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, or fossil fuel industry interests. It didn’t need to. We have been run ragged by them and know they aren’t about finding solutions to the crisis, but exacerbating it. These people would have detracted from the film’s purpose and lent credibility to those who don’t deserve any.
We left the Bing Theater feeling good. Both of my daughters were relieved it wasn’t a 90 minute “we’re all doomed” montage, but a film of people engaged in changing the world with profound implications for their future. My oldest mused, “Who knew so many were working in so many ways?” We are not, as the films shows, ignoring the problem because millionaires paid by billionaires tell us there is nothing to worry about and to do nothing. Ice on Fire is beautifully shot and edited. It hits the right balance between interview, narration, facts and tables without being boring. But its engaging artistry is all directed to show us if enough people contribute their voices to support these efforts already underway and support the research to discover as yet undiscovered solutions, we and many other living things will continue to exist on this planet, and the powerful play that is the human story will go on.