What Wednesday night’s engaging, high-profile New York screening of “Chasing Ice” needed was more conflict.
Yes, Jeff Orlowski’s debut documentary will have plenty of competition throughout awards season, especially as it battles its way toward the Oscar podium. But I mean real argument, debate, confrontation. Because a breathtaking feature-length display of the effects of global warming is ultimately designed to change minds, and the one thing you can be pretty sure is going to be in short supply at a high-profile New York City awards-season screening is climate-change deniers.
So, as impressive as that insanely moving footage was to capture, the real challenge for the "Chasing Ice” filmmakers— Orlowski and his producers, National Geographic, Submarine Deluxe and the film’s main subject, photographer James Balog — is to get Fox fixture Sean Hannity, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the billionaire Koch Bros., and other likeminded climate-change doubters to sit as we did Wednesday night, watch the movie and debate the unprecedented visual evidence it presents. As it happens, many of them make an appearance in the film, and while the VIP guests at the Museum of Art & Design certainly have influence, the truth is that they don’t have the power to change minds on global warming the way Hannity does.
Balog, who bears a slight, unnerving resemblance to Michael Bay, eventually became fixated on ice after decades of photographing the natural world. That led to the Extreme Ice Survey and the idea of trying to document climate change in a concrete way, since Balog sees the problem not as one of economy or technology, but as one of perception. So he set out to document incontrovertible evidence of “the miracle and horror” of melting glaciers with a small team of engineers, climatologists, glaciologists and videographers (including Orlowski). They designed a plan to mount more than two dozen cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana that would take photos of glaciers every hour for years, and Orlowski ended up turning the project into a documentary, as well.
After overcoming physical hardship, several knee surgeries and utter mechanical failure, Balog and his crew finally got the footage that they were looking for between 2007 and 2010. What unfolds in Orlowski’s movie is a story of Balog’s obsession and the visual evidence he captures of the glaciers’ accelerating disintegration, which climaxes in a show-stopping set of time-lapse segments near the end of the film. Interspersed are breathtaking still photos and video segments of gigantic ice slabs breaking away — something called “calving” — in such immense chunks that they make the Fortress of Solitude look like a snowflake.
The film is undoubtedly emotional, and for those caught up in the looming tragedy of rising seas and temperatures, the scene of a giant block of ice cracking off and rolling over into the ocean is cause for tears. As Balog says in the film, “You can’t divorce civilization from nature — we totally depend on it.”
Environmental documentaries periodically win the Oscar — “The Cove” in 2009 and “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 — a designation that inevitably leads to greater exposure with audiences. Balog hopes that, while “Truth” endured substantial backlash because of Vice President Al Gore’s “baggage,” he and Orlowski will remain what social psychologists call “trusted messengers” — they are perceived not to have any political or other prejudice in telling this story and thus are less prone to knee-jerk audience reaction. Yet while awards recognition would certainly help the film, in a way the provocation of public debate with a few key people in the opposition would have even greater impact.