Leo DiCaprio plays it safe with his new film, 'Before The Flood'

Before The Flood
© Before The Flood

In his new climate change documentary, DiCaprio opts for caution and polite concern at a time when outrage is desperately needed.

Last night I watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s new climate change documentary, Before The Flood. Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens and presented by National Geographic, it features DiCaprio in his current role as a U.N. Messenger of Peace, on a three-year quest to learn about climate change and emphasize the need for urgent, widespread solutions.

I was disappointed. Honestly, I think Leo missed the boat on this one. He could have made a powerful, innovative film that challenges the status quo and inspires people to change radically their approach and fight for government action; but instead he comes across a weak American observer, passively touring a ravaged planet with politely expressed concern.

I expected more outrage, more indignation at what’s happening, but that didn’t come through. For example, he expresses shock at Chinese smog, followed swiftly by delight at renewable solutions explained to him by government officials (who are a key part of China’s ongoing pollution problems).

He tells Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environement in Delhi, that the country should invest in cleaner energy (300 million Indians still do not have access to energy). She tells him, point blank, “American consumption is going to put a hole in the planet.” He squirms awkwardly, but replies, “That’s not going to change.” I wanted to shout at him, “Is that not the whole point of this documentary?”

For once, I wish a climate change documentary would stop focusing on faraway places and put the spotlight on the huge problem of Western consumption – the enormous houses, the monstrous SUVs, the excessive diet, the addicted shopping. After all, it’s our endless demands that drive so much of the pollution in factory-countries like India and China.

Leo occupies a rare and privileged position, from which he could effect real change, but he seems to squander the chance. As a world-famous celebrity, he has access to powerful people, such as Barack Obama, Pope Francis, John Kerry, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, all of whom agree to interviews. With his stardom, he could rally viewers, generate important conversation, and get away with asking tough questions, but he doesn’t. The interview questions are frustratingly banal and cautious. He does not probe sensitive topics. He does not call out these leaders on their ongoing failures to meet targets, to be accountable, to be the environmental stewards this world needs.

Before The Flood feels like every other climate change documentary, full of spectacular sweeping panoramas of melting Arctic ice, burning rainforests, flooding South Pacific islands, dead coral reefs, and smoggy Chinese cities. His trip to the Alberta oil sands was particularly interesting. He flies in a helicopter over devastated boreal forest and polluted waterways, chaperoned by a Suncor official who proudly explains the production process. Leo’s only criticism: “It looks like Mordor.” The Suncor man fails to get the reference.

Interspersed throughout the film is Leo on the set on The Revenant, his recent movie about a man fighting against the elements. Apparently the film crew couldn’t find snow in the Canadian Rockies when needed, so the entire crew flew to Argentina to finish filming. This was meant to be an alarming example of climate change, and yet it struck me as the root of the whole problem – the privileged uber-rich who love their entertainment so much that they can afford to fly hundreds of people and piles of gear in fossil fuel-powered planes to film a few snowy scenes on schedule! I’d have a lot more respect for DiCaprio if he’d said, “No, I guess we’ll film those scenes without snow and explain to viewers why there was none.”

The one thing that pleased me immensely was that the film dared attack the beef industry, urging viewers to stop eating beef as it’s a huge emitter of greenhouse gases. It’s a message that even Naomi Klein inexplicably missed in her powerful book, “This Changes Everything.”

For those of us who believe climate change is a very, very serious problem, the film offers nothing new. For those who say climate change is a hoax, there’s little to convince them of its reality.

Spreading awareness is still worth something, I suppose, and perhaps someday all the talk will transform into action, if enough people get angry. Before The Flood is available for free online, on National Geographic’s YouTube channel. See trailer below.

Leo DiCaprio plays it safe with his new film, 'Before The Flood'
In his new climate change documentary, DiCaprio opts for caution and polite concern at a time when outrage is desperately needed.

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