THE DOCUMENTARY "Earth Days"

WHEN | WHERE9-11 Monday on PBS/13's "American Experience"

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Watching post-World War II superabundance collide with what this "progress" would do to our air, water, natural world and global politics.

HOW THE STORY IS TOLD Chronologically, without voice-over narration, but with strikingly personal memories, ethereal music and lots of vintage color footage.

Guiding us are nine people who have devoted their lives to our environment - among them, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, biologist-author Paul Ehrlich, astronaut Rusty Schweickart and former Republican congressman Pete McCloskey, who co-sponsored the first Earth Day recognition 40 years ago this week.

So it's not all hippies and tree-huggers. Director Robert Stone's remarkably clear-eyed film upends the usual bad/good blame game from the start, collecting footage of every president from John F. Kennedy onward decrying "the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to the water" (those words are Richard Nixon's).

Industrial "progress" had by the '60s indisputably resulted in air so polluted that it was almost unbreathable and rivers that had become sewers. Books like Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" and Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" were raising public awareness.

Yet, early attempts to "save the planet" backfired, not only due to corporate or political resistance, but also to counterculture activists' naiveté, technophobia, constraint approach, and us-vs.-them tactics. The movement would edge into the political mainstream, and America would act to clean up air and water pollution.

"Earth Days" weaves a mesmerizing web with its thoughtful voices, evocative visual montages, and Michael Giacchino's soothing, eerie music. In fact, director Stone's whole film is composed like a piece of music, ebbing and flowing, to lull, then excite, then scare, then inspire. There's also explicit compassion for human nature - how "better living through chemistry" morphs obliviously into indifferent damage, and how human evolution naturally puts short-term imperatives ahead of long-term solutions.

BOTTOM LINE It's hard to imagine a more fascinating history of the environmental movement - or the social, economic and political forces that created the need for it.

GRADE A

 

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