Are you tired of celebrities getting involved in politics and acting like experts in fields they know nothing about? Leonardo DiCaprio agrees with you! At the beginning of Before the Flood, which documents the first two years of his ongoing stint as the UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, the actor admits that, despite his longtime philanthropic efforts on environmentalism, he doesn’t know much about climate science and wonders whether the UN made the right choice. And then, after some self-deprecating clips from right-wing US media bashing DiCaprio’s new UN role, Flood launches into the actor’s often shame-faced personal journey to learn more, overcome his pessimism at the enormous scale of the problem, and find hope that it’s not too late to make a difference. Spoiler: He does find real hope. Some of it is actually geekily exciting, like Elon Musk’s plan to power the planet with solar-charged batteries. (And this is before Tesla’s unveiling the other day of its gorgeous solar-panel roof tiles, which is not included in the film, obviously.)
Director Fisher Stevens, who won an Oscar in 2010 as producer of the marvelous environmental doc The Cove, offers us some stunning photography of what we can still save (such as arctic ice), and some horrifying vistas of the damage we have already done: as a shocked DiCaprio (The Revenant, The Wolf of Wall Street) notes during a helicopter flyover of Alberta tar-sand oil fields, “It looks like Mordor.” But it’s DiCaprio putting himself in a position to be embarrassed as a fossil-fuel-hogging American that makes Flood so powerful, and so different from the other documentaries about global warming we’ve seen recently. His carbon footprint, as a globetrotting celebrity, is bigger than that of most Americans, as he readily admits… but as Americans, we are all responsible for being the nation with the highest consumption of fossil fuels, and the dumpers of the most CO2 into the atmosphere.
Seeing an Indian environmental activist roll her eyes and shake her head at DiCaprio for saying that he doesn’t think Americans can change our lifestyles is sobering, and it should make us ashamed. We, as a nation, cannot insist that other countries make sacrifices in their economic development and way of life that we are not willing to make ourselves. The US does not hold a moral high ground on this issue — and in fact, as noted here, India and China are transitioning to clean energy much more rapidly than the US is — but we could. And we need to because, as that Indian activist says, we are “burning a hole” in the planet. The smack that DiCaprio’s arrogance and hypocrisy get here must be taken as a smack to all us Americans. And we should be mortified by it.
But what can we do as individuals? The film — written by Mark Monroe (Racing Extinction, The Cove) — has lots of suggestions. For one, we don’t need to go vegan: just cutting down on our consumption of beef, the production of which is environmentally awful, is a good start. But the biggest and most important thing is that we must demand real change and real leadership from our politicians. Our leaders follow us, Flood is correct in stating, and if enough people insist on action, they will have no choice but to act. Whether the US elects a president in 2016 who believes climate change is a hoax or one who supports fracking when we need to get off fossil fuels entirely, agitating for a new way of powering our nation and the world is going to remain of vital importance for many years to come.
viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival