I recently heard a network executive say something at a press conference that startled me. In speaking of documentaries, she noted that one of “the things about documentaries is” that “they’re true.”
Not exactly! At least, not inherently and not necessarily. They are generally nonfiction, and they offer perspectives on “real” people, places, ideas and events. Of course that’s not the same thing as “truth,” and even really exhaustive documentaries can’t claim to have captured the whole truth of something. Even if a film doesn’t seek to persuade you on a particular interpretation of its subject (and they really can’t help but do that to some extent), it takes a position. To the extent “always” and “never” even exist in nature, there is never a single answer to a question.
Most people are, at this point, able to agree that the planet’s climate is shifting, but beyond that, there’s something of a plurality of opinions on what’s happening and why, on what the future looks like, and what is and is not a reasonable call to action. Available films on the subject range from academic to alarmist, from very general to very narrowly focused, from predictive to historical, and from “we’re toast” to “it is very important to understand we are not toast and our actions matter.” Oh, and from “here’s what’s happening” to “here’s why everything you are being told is a big fat hoaxy-hoax.” Given that the climate change discussion is impossibly steeped in politics, it’s a really good idea to try and work out why some people are still fighting tooth and nail insisting that climate change is a media sham. “Follow the money” isn’t the whole answer. It’s weirder than that. So while they are not on this list, checking out 2016’s Climate Hustle or 2007’s The Great Global Warming Swindle might yield some unexpected … insights. Like maybe you’ll notice certain ideas come up in “denier” documentaries that have a crystal of truth in them, which might or might not be explicitly used to anchor and legitimize a whole bunch of hooey. Or perhaps you’ll see certain characters, experts or pundits, who seem to be in every single minority-opinion piece.
1. An Inconvenient Truth/An Inconvenient Sequel (2006/2017)
Directors: David Guggenheim, Jon Shenk, Bonni Cohen
Poor Al Gore. He told you this was going to happen, but did anyone listen? The former VP and longtime Climate Cassandra has a certain fatuous know-it-all, Carl Sagan namedropping je ne sais quoi that will annoy some folks, but it’s not that hard to get past, and to be fair, the story this gold-standard climate documentary presents is a mindful, clear, rational and only slightly snarky high-level view of why this period of climate change is indeed a human-caused phenomenon, a geopolitical threat and a moral imperative. The sequel, made 10 years after the original film, doesn’t even really suffer from this; it’s oddly and poignantly humble.
Anxiety trigger level: Low to medium.
The film largely takes the form of an XXL TED Talk, which gives it a bit of a remove from some of the most frantic entries in the genre. It’s calm and measured, designed to move people to action without causing panic.
2. Before the Flood (2016)
Director: Fisher Stevens
Logline: Leo DiCaprio meets the Pope.
In all seriousness, Leo meets the Pope, the UN, and a lot of scientists. You won’t likely get a unique natural history perspective on the climate crisis from this film—the photography is basic and serviceable. DiCaprio’s achievement here is to put forth, in authentic and often self-effacing terms, one guy’s personal anxiety and despair about what’s happening (despite having above-average resources) against a cadre of still-optimistic experts and leaders ranging from John Kerry and Barack Obama to Piers Sellers and Elon Musk. It illuminates the reality that many (many!) thought leaders still believe in our ability to improve the situation and that there is still every reason to continue trying. Some of them challenge DiCaprio’s own personal pessimism about our odds of slowing climate change or defraying its effects, which is useful for people who already feel like it must be too late. It also shines a light on the frankly stupid political processes that impede progress toward a solution. And there’s a subtle tutorial on the merits of decorating your baby’s room with images painted by Hieronymus Bosch. (Thanks, Dad.)
Anxiety Trigger Level: Medium high.
Thing are dire, but the experts are unusually optimistic
3. Chasing Coral (2017)
Director: Jeff Orlowski
This film tracks a crew of dedicated coral-nerds who are trying to capture a “coral bleaching” event (mass death from overheated water). There’s some beautiful underwater photography, both still and moving, of corals—healthy coral reefs look like they were drawn by an animator at Pixar, and they are stunning. On the whole, the documentary is not a blazing artistic groundbreaker. And it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to get you tuned in to the fact that while everyone’s talking about the impact of global warming as if it were something still in the future, ocean temperatures are now regularly experiencing what used to be extremely exceptional random events—namely, “fever” temps that cause coral to die. Now. In real time, and quickly. It doesn’t take generations; it takes weeks. It’s happening right this minute and all over the parts of the planet populated by coral.
Anxiety trigger level: High.
But watch it anyway.
4. Chasing Ice (2012)
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Stunning visuals! This documentary follows Jim Balog, a photographer who went to the Arctic on assignment for National Geographic. Balog was something of a climate skeptic (a word I wish wouldn’t be used synonymously with “denier”), so this is a quite interesting story of revelation and a testament to the power of personal observation. The photography is stunning, the story full of tension, and the message explicit.
Anxiety trigger level: Pretty high.
Orlowski has a way of making every frame feel like a time bomb. And aside from the footage of melting ice there’s a lot of tension arising from the life-threatening conditions in which Balog is filming.
5. Eating Animals (2018)
Director: Christopher Dillon Quinn
Factory farming is unhealthy for animals, including people. There’s really no debating that. We can quibble about degrees, though I’d argue against going to the trouble. We are biological omnivores, like chickens, bears or rats. This does not mean we must eat animals; it means we can if we need to. We have decided that we need to, and in unsustainably large quantities. This film strongly suggests giving some thought to what you’re really buying at the grocery store, and using your food budget consciously. The film is a needed reminder that as individual consumers, our choices do matter.
Anxiety trigger-level: Medium.
There is a lot of dire footage in this film, but of all the inputs to the climate crisis, being more mindful about what you eat is probably the greatest no-brainer for an individual next to “don’t landfill your food scraps,” and moving away from eating animals has basically zero drawbacks; it’s better for our health and our finances as well as the airy abstraction that is “the planet.”
6. Merchants of Doubt (2014)
Director: Robert Kenner
This is one climate documentary that will offer few distressing images of calving glaciers and rainforest clearcutting and freaky wildfires, so if you feel bludgeoned by the images, you can check out this film and take a breather while watching pundits in suits lie through their teeth for money. Here’s the issue-under-the-issue people aren’t really talking about: On the one hand, “skeptic” should never become a bad word or shorthand for “hysterical ignoramus whose craycray detachment from empirical reality directly threatens the existence of regular reasonable folks.” It just shouldn’t. In the absence of dissenting opinions we cannot engage in critical thinking and without that, we are toast. The nomenclature is important, a nod to the reality that we can never know what we don’t know or perceive what we can’t perceive. Smart, educated people should be able not only to listen to opinions and theories they disagree with, but to make arguments they disagree with. It’s a crucial skill.
But what do you do with folks like Marc Morano? Or the legions of “expert scientists” who make big money propounding “theories” they might not have the expertise to support, or might not especially even believe? This film follows several science “experts” who collect fees from one industry after another for sowing bullshit to save large industries from having to lose revenue or lose in court or change their practices. Several key climate deniers are former “tobacco isn’t addictive” experts and “you need pounds of flame retardant in your furniture” experts. This film follows a few of them and is quite revealing without the need to be particularly polemical.
Anxiety trigger level: Low.
These people are outrageous, but the way the film is constructed will not give you panic attacks. If anything, I found it a reassuring “you’re not crazy; these people are manipulative as hell” message.
7. Time to Choose (2015)
Director: Charles Ferguson
This film is 100% call to action, emphasizing the reality that we already possess the technology to stall, halt or reverse climate change, and that it’s literally a matter of a few billionaires relinquishing their death grip on a handful of industries (coal, oil and industrial agriculture). Cogently laid out and smartly filmed, it pairs footage of environmental success stories (like urban planning utopia Curitiba, Brazil) against epic failures (like catastrophic deforestation of Brazil for soy farming). Interview subjects include Michael Pollan, Jane Goodall and Jaime Lerner, among many others.
Anxiety trigger level: Medium.
Time to Choose goes out of its way to emphasize the economic benefits of changing consumption patterns rather than simply cataloguing bad decisions. But there are bad decisions aplenty, with accompanying visuals that will probably make you want to cry.
8. Wasted: The Story of Food Waste (2017)
Directors: Nari Kye, Anna Chai
Fun Fact: 90% of U.S. food waste ends up in landfills, where it creates large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that makes CO2 look like a piker. Fun fact: None of that food waste has to end up in landfills. There are alternatives available to literally everyone, most of them requiring little to no effort.
Some environmental issues seem politically blockaded to the point of hopelessness, or insurmountable for any number of reasons. This documentary is incredibly compelling evidence that we’re looking at an absolutely crazy exception and the main reason we haven’t conquered it is that people are just plain not paying attention. Sequestering your biodegradable garbage is a no-brainer, and re-orienting ourselves away from waste-culture is a shockingly obvious-yet-underutilized pathway to better environmental conditions, better food security, better support for the undernourished and more money in our pockets. This film may actually make you care about it, and not by way of sanctimony or self-righteousness or fist-pounding or garbage-shaming—Wasted is super optimistic, full of fantastic food-porn, and oftentimes hilarious. Featured thinkers include Tristram Stuart, Dan Barber and Mario Batali.
Anxiety trigger level: Low.
The narrow focus of this film and the clear, low-tech, available-now solution to a 100% avoidable problem make you feel fired up, not devastated.