I don’t remember the last time I changed my mind so many times about a documentary over the course of a single screening. First, “this is hopelessly dreary.” Then: “No, actually it’s pretty smart and quite optimistic.” “No, it’s too choppy.” “No-it’s good, even funny.” “Well… maybe not funny but…” Anyway, yes. Ice on Fire, debuting on HBO, directed by Leila Connors and produced and voiced by Leonardo DiCaprio, is an educational film about climate change and what we can still do about it. It’s especially important viewing if you think the answer is “nothing, it is too late.” But even if you don’t think that, this might refine your sense of what to do next.
Even before it gets too far along Ice on Fire reminds us of a less profound truth—not everyone who is a great actor is a great documentary curator. Leo DiCaprio may be gifted and adorable and laudable in his desire to do this project, but maybe climate science call-to-action documentary voiceover is not the highest use of his talents. Every single time he speaks, it’s distracting. The voice and delivery just don’t seem to gel with the content.
Between that and the pacing, it took me close to half an hour to get into this thing. That might have been the vicissitudes of an individual attention span, but it might have been that the film starts out in a way designed to grab attention a bit violently (fair enough)—it’s dour and gloomy and stochastic and a little hard to focus on. However, Ice on Fire hits a groove as it transitions from alarm to presenting a mosaic of optimistic, industrious folks all over the world who are working on the problem and far from convinced it’s a losing battle.
Fig and loquat and banana trees tangle around artichoke and sunflower starts in a Los Angeles urban farm, the tiny plot sequestering carbon equivalent to the emissions of seven conventional engine hatchbacks. The OG (Organic Gardener) who runs the place has a simple enough mission: Utilize the extremely direct connection between growing food and directly impacting everything from the oxygen-richness of the atmosphere to poverty, food insecurity and chronic illness. It’s not an either-or proposition: technologies that help the environment help us, and they help us by helping the environment, yes, but also in addition to helping the environment, if that makes sense. (Spoiler: It makes all the sense in the world.)
A disaffected Bering Sea fisherman has reinvented himself as an oyster farmer in the Long Island Sound. He says a single oyster filters 50 gallons of seawater a day. He shows off rafts of kelp that absorb five times as much carbon as a terrestrial plant (and if you feed it to cattle, reduces methane emissions by 90%). Restorative species, he points out, need no inputs, no fertilizers, no commercial feed.
In Croatia, scientists are working on accelerating the development of marine snow. In California, redwood trees blighted by beetles and weakened by drought are being turned into water-saving soil additives for agricultural land. In Switzerland, technology for capturing atmospheric carbon is being used to power greenhouses and create renewable fuel. They apparently have the ability to turn carbon into solid stone in a matter of hours. The point is, viable climate change solutions already exist. They just need to be implemented broadly and synergistically. Hopeful and infuriating at once, no?
Ice on Fire is a “call to action” documentary. It’s an eye-opener for anyone prone to a stultifying “doomsday mentality” and that is unequivocally a good thing. The visual sensibility shies away from the majestic and saturated, preferring an understated and at times almost drab palette, presumably to underscore current and impending degradation of our ecosystems. The range of interview subjects is vast, spanning many countries, several industries and a host of academic disciplines. It’s “political” in the sense that this subject inherently is political, but it isn’t polemical. It calmly tackles “climate contrarian” questions such as, “Yes, but how do we know humans are causing climate change?” (The stunning answer? Because we can measure the radioactive isotope Carbon 14, y’all! Derp.) The film also makes the point that even if we were mistaken and in 100 years it comes to light that we somehow had it wrong, there is really no downside to living in a more sustainable way, even economically.
Ice on Fire illuminates global opportunities to shift our mindsets, our economies and our priorities without undue discomfort. (I don’t know about you, but I’m okay with eating more scallops and oysters, and less beef, I’m totally fine with my electricity coming from solar panels and wind turbines, and I think urban farms and gardens are esthetically preferable to strip malls.) Basically, this film would like you to know there are strong potential solutions, they can be implemented if the will exists to do so, and everyone, not just fusty ivory tower scientist crabapples, can be part of what that fisherman calls “the army that saves the world.”
Director: Leila Connors
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (narration)
Release Date: June 11, 2019
Amy Glynn writes about film, TV and wine, among many, many other things.