One of the brightest surprises of the awards season is that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is not a musty biopic on the life of a presidential great. Instead, it’s a relentless wonk-fest about the sausage-making of politics. The message, ugly yet entirely accurate, is that politics require gross manipulation, even when the goal is as lofty as the illegalization of slavery. I mention Lincoln in reference to Chasing Ice, a noble but conceptually tiresome activist documentary, because the two are about the same idea: not slavery, but the communication of important issues. Only Lincoln is about this on purpose.
Chasing Ice concerns science in general and climate change specifically. Even more specifically, it’s about James Balog, a seasoned nature photographer whose pet focus is the effects of global warming. In a wildly popular spread for National Geographic, his photos documented actual, measurable, provable climate change: Towering glaciers that hadn’t melted more than a couple inches in hundreds of years had, in the last decade, all but depleted to mush.
Climate change has had a bumpy history: An Inconvenient Truth helped make it a major issue with plebeians, only for “skeptics”—with quotations used because actual skeptics accept climate change science—to mount a comeback. Recent megastorms have rallied more people back to the correct stance, but these cases are more populist than scientific. Hurricane Sandy doesn’t exactly “prove” climate change, although that notion is more rigorous than the bullshit Climate Research Unit “email scandal” of ’09.
Communicating science to the masses is a tricky matter, as witnessed by the high number of Americans who still don’t believe in biological evolution. Chasing Ice has strong proof, but proof by itself is not a solid hook. Presentation is key, and documentarian Jeff Orlowski chooses a cheap, time-wasting path: He makes it a profile of Balog, assuming that delving endlessly into some dude’s personal life will serve as a way into audiences’ hearts. (Or at least pad out the running time: Balog’s findings only fuel a half-hour of screentime, and the film is still only 75 minutes.) Al Gore talked about himself, too, but such scenes were only peppered throughout data-heavy lectures. Here, it’s almost all about Balog and his “journey,” and while he seems like a nice and smart guy, frankly, who gives a shit if his knees hurt?