TIFF Review: ‘Before the Flood’

TIFF 2016

5 mins read

Before the Flood
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Fisher Stevens
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


Leonardo DiCaprio puts his environmental activism in the spotlight in the new eco doc Before the Flood. DiCaprio is the guide throughout this film directed by Oscar winner Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and his passion for protecting the planet is unquestionable. The film begins with the current Academy Award winning actor meeting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and preparing to address the world’s delegates. Before the Flood illustrates how some celebrities go beyond photo ops and work tirelessly to inspire change.

Before the Flood makes the usual arguments about climate change as it offers ominous portraits of environmental disasters around the globe. Temperatures are climbing, waters are rising, and consumers are wasting energy from unsustainable sources. The case is clear regardless of what the climate change deniers and lobbyists say.

DiCaprio brings some new voices to the eco doc conversation as his clout and celebrity affords access to world leaders like John Kerry, Barack Obama, and even Pope Francis. DiCaprio’s been netting impressive one on ones with major players since his early years as an eco advocate, most notably when he had a sit down interview then-President Bill Clinton. Particularly interesting are some behind the scenes snippets from the set of The Revenant as DiCaprio and director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu move their shoot from Alberta to Argentina when unexpectedly high temperatures rob them of snow for their winter landscapes. These scenes show how the actor’s activism intersects with his art and, more importantly, how effects of climate change enter even his daily life through unexpected intrusions.

However, DiCaprio isn’t an especially strong interviewer despite his genuine interest and charismatic screen presence. His knowledge of the international locations he visits is also too limited to create an effective conversation. For example, the actor takes a helicopter ride over the Alberta oil sands and witnesses the horrible devastation to the Canadian landscape. As an oil company spokesperson joins DiCaprio for the ride and offers some PR spin, Leo simply nods and gazes out the window. “It looks like Mordor” is his reply. Ditto an expert in India who overtakes him in an interview and turns the debate from an idealised chat on renewable energy to a necessary lecture on the wastefulness of U.S. consumers. He can’t do much beyond smile and nod.

A nod to Lord of the Rings is all very well, but Before the Flood is ultimately more about Leonard DiCaprio than it is about climate change. A personal anecdote about the artistic masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch and the decline from a pastoral Eden to a world of chaos offers a fine illustration for the world’s downfall at the hands of human activity, but DiCaprio’s star power overwhelms the film. He even shares a credit with Stevens in the opening title card that proclaims ‘A film by.’

DiCaprio remains the film’s biggest selling point though, as Before the Flood offers little new in the climate change discussion. Moreover, the presence of Al Gore and the obvious influence of An Inconvenient Truth speak to the staleness of Stevens’ globetrotting approach of talking heads and graphics. This doc simply offers the easy generalisations audiences have heard before, like encouragements to consume less and vote for politicians with mandates to think green.

The inconvenient truth about environmental documentaries is that they need to do more than wag fingers and preach to the converted. Big names are great for raising awareness, but we’ve seen most of the elements of this eco doc before. Rather than serve a star-studded polemic, more filmmakers need to take a cue from, say, Nettie Wild]s KONELINE and inspire audiences through art.

Before the Flood screens:
-Friday, Sept. 16 at 9:00 AM at Cineplex Scotiabank

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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