EARTH DAYS (2009) – Documentary Retroview

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This compelling documentary is a chronicle of the environmental movement in the US.

To explore the fundamental premises and chronicle the advent of Earth Days, our annual celebration of Gaia and whatever ecological awareness we can muster, documentary director Robert Stone has assembled and interviewed a special tribe of the environmental movement’s elders — Stuart Udall, Denis Hayes, Paul Ehrlich, Pete McCloskey and Rusty Schweickart among other activists, politicians and forecasters — who give testimony about advances made by conservationists during the 1960s and 70s, and lead us to an understanding of what happened beginning with the Nixon administration to bring us to our current situation — on the brink of environmental disaster.

It’s Time For An Environmental Retrospective

According to Stone’s assembled elders, during the period from JFK’s presidency through that of Jimmy Carter, the US government was actually moving towards establishment of sustainable environmental policies and practices.

Earth Days presents archival footage of those very presidents and the others who served during the intervening years, including Richard Nixon, proclaiming environmental concerns to be crucial and extolling the urgent need for conservationist measures to be put in place.

During their administrations, government environmental agencies were funded to develop and implement alternative and sustainable energy sources. In a monumentally pro-conservation gesture, Jimmy Carter even installed energy-saving solar panels on the White House roof.

The politicians were, of course, responding to public opinion, and the expression of the progressive grassroots environmental movement that was afoot. Earth Days suggests that at its root was NASA’s space exploration program and, in particular, those astounding photos of Earth sent home from orbiting space crafts. The iconic images, showing Mother Earth suspended in the vastness of space, brought about a shift in public awareness and opinion. They gave us a clearer view, and understanding, of our reliance of our planet — and of its vulnerability.

So, what happened and why, if we were nearing sustainability thirty years ago, do we now find ourselves on the brink of ecological disaster?

What Happened to the Environmental Movement?

We see that the government’s environmental program was effectively shut down — yes, shut down — by Ronald Reagan. Yes, Ronald (the beloved) Reagan. Beginning with archival footage of a campaign speech in which Reagan declares government doesn’t belong in the business of regulating energy use or other environmental matters of any sort, and culminating in the heartwrenching moment in which he actually had those Carter-installed solar panels dismantled and removed from the White House roof, Reagan systematically and aggressively defunded, decommissioned and shut down government support of the conservation movement.

Stone’s Style and Structure

Stone’s brilliance as a filmmaker is that he serves the audience by serving his film’s subject. A lesser director might have presented all those environmental experts and political heavies as a series of talking heads, but Stone (who also directed Oswald’s Ghost, 2007, and the Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini, 1988) deftly avoids such dullness by separating comments from images. In Earth Days, he plays much of his insightful witness commentary as voice over narration in counterpoint to extraordinary images of Earth as seen from space, and other iconic images and startling footage of gas guzzling vehicles trapped in stand still traffic jams, expanses of strip-logged valleys, factories spewing black smoke into the hazy atmosphere, vintage TV ads exemplifying America’s wealth and consumerism, assembly lines manned by happy factory workers, loggers protesting the creation of national parks and other memorable visuals. The result is mesmerizing.

More Than The Sum of Its Parts

Stone’s artful juxtaposition of image and audio reaches deep into your psyche, forces you to contemplate the evidence and to question events. The film’s impact is reinforced by a beautiful and superbly suggestive score — one that is so subtly applied and so entirely integrated and in support of the film that you might not even notice it’s there — until the second or third time you see the film, when you may notice that you’re breathing in time to the music that you didn’t even hear at first.

Additionally, Stone’s smartly selective application of computer generated images expands his thesis. The concept of exponential growth, for example, is demonstrated by the refolding of a table cloth over and over. No spoilers here: you’ll be shocked to see the thickness — or distance — established when a tablecloth is folded 39 times. The bottom line is that Earth Days is full of ‘ah ha moments’ that will push you to new insights about the environmental movement, American history and filmmaking. This documentary is a perfect marriage of style and substance. You’ll want to see it several times. And, when you do, you won’t be disappointed.

Film Details:

Title: Earth Days
Director: Robert Stone
US Theatrical Release Date: August 14, 2009 (limited)
Running Time: 90 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Location: USA
Language: English
Production Country: USA
Production Company: American Experience
Distribution Company: Zeitgeist

If You Like This Film, You’ll Also Like:

An Inconvenient Truth
The Eleventh Hour
Who Killed The Electric Car?
Oswald’s Ghost

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