COMMENTARY: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Green Gamble

Two Views of The 11th Hour

Thumbs Up: The 11th Hour Needs to Be Seen

By Brian Clark Howard

Superstar Leonardo DiCaprio"s movie, The 11th Hour, takes a sobering look at our global environmental mess.© Photos Warner Brothers

"We don’t know where the warming will go, but the worst case would be like our sister planet Venus, where it is 250 degrees Celsius, and where it rains sulfuric acid," intoned Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s greatest scientists, in his computer-generated voice. The dire warning set much of the tone of the new documentary film The 11th Hour, which opened August 17.

The 11th Hour is presented, narrated, co-produced and co-written by superstar green celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio. The multi-hyphenate actor had enlisted Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, with whom he had worked on a couple of short green films, to direct the epic 11th Hour for Tree Media Group and Warner Brothers.

Leo’s film is a departure from the hip, edgy, narrative-driven docs that have been so hot the past few years, and that have been widely credited with resurrecting a largely ignored sector of American cinema. Don’t go to The 11th Hour expecting to see Super Size Me, Sicko, This Film Is Not Yet Rated or the latest from the brilliant Errol Morris. The 11th Hour has a traditional, "serious" structure of interviews and footage that plays like a PBS or Discovery Channel special, albeit one that is very well made.

Leo takes viewers through a sober, hard-hitting journey of the ravages of climate change, and touches on other human-induced threats facing our world. The film plays as sequences of dramatic, tightly edited vignettes of environmental damage and hope, intercut with sit-down interviews with leading green thinkers, the roster of which reads like the speakers at a Bioneers conference (included is Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel). The interviews are intimate, with stark backgrounds in a style that calls to mind Charlie Rose (which, incidentally, now has a great amount of material from past shows archived online).

Ominous, ambient tones play through most of The 11th Hour, heightening the sense of foreboding and seriousness. In this way the soundtrack is similar to the recent nonfiction masterpieces The Corporation and In the Realms of the Unreal.

What Is The Message?

Not content with merely addressing climate change (as if that issue weren’t big enough!), The 11th Hour brings together experts on sustainable design, biomimicry, consumption, air and water quality, environmental justice, renewable energy, species loss and even religious thought.

For example, it was pointed out by leading green thinker David Suzuki that human beings are directly responsible for 55,000 species going extinct every year. "There isn’t one living system that is stable or improving," said green author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken.

Author and talk radio host Thom Hartmann argued that humanity could never have exceeded a global population of one billion (it’s more than six billion today) without heavy, and unsustainable, use of fossil fuels. In a fascinating, and poignant, interview, former CIA head (and Iraq war supporter) James Woolsey explained that one third of what the U.S. borrows is used for oil imports. "That’s about a billion dollars a day, or at least every working day," said Woolsey, who also has an attention-getting presence in the doc Who Killed The Electric Car? Woolsey has recently gained acclaim among environmentalists for his efforts to promote conservation and renewable technologies in the name of energy security.

The connections to energy run deep in The 11th Hour. In fact, anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter went so far as to say, "Energy is the key to everything we do." It was also pointed out that ExxonMobil is worth more than all auto companies in the world combined!One of the central themes, stated by psychologist and author James Hillman, was that we can’t live separately from nature. Why so many of us think we can is the fundamental cause of our abuse of the planet, according to Hillman, and it seems, DiCaprio.

What About That Other Global Warming Movie?

Of course, it is impossible to view The 11th Hour without thinking of An Inconvenient Truth. The two works obviously have a great deal in common in terms of subject matter, tone and even those ambient background sounds.

Ominous music is paired with majestic imagery.© Warner Brothers

When I first saw An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by how popular it had become, given that pretty hefty doses of scientific explanation are doled out, and not much action "happens," as American moviegoers typically demand. But the overall affect is quite stunning and profound, and Al Gore’s substantial, and seemingly growing, charisma, pushed the film into the stratosphere.

Is Leonardo’s charisma enough to vault The 11th Hour beyond the green choir and the art theater crowd? One concern is that the celebrated actor appears on screen much less than Gore did, and his brief addresses serve more to bookend the main content than truly live with it. On one hand, An Inconvenient Truth may have primed the public’s appetite for more green information.

But on the other hand, are we expecting a lot for Americans to go out for another movie that seems to be about impending doom?

Many in right-leaning circles will accuse The 11th Hour of trying to scaremonger, or of flirting too heavily with New Age thought. Many of those in the know will be energized by its raw power and its reinforcement of what they’ve suspected for some time. The big question remains, will the film reach and affect many in the middle, who represent both the largest swath of society, and who arguably have the greatest ability to make a difference?

In the film, professor and sustainable design guru David Orr of Oberlin College called these days "all hands on deck time." Leading conservation biologist Stuart Pimm called it an "enormously challenging time." For his part, Leo said our response to the threats facing our only home planet depend on the "conscious evolution of our species."

BRIAN CLARK HOWARD, former managing editor of E, is now the Home & Tips Editor for, where this review first appeared.

Thumbs Halfway: The 11th Hour Is a Scattershot Success

By Dan Shapley

The 11th Hour, Leonardo DiCaprio’s statement about the state of the environment, is an optimistic apocalyptic march across the decaying globe, narrated at the pace of a heartbeat, with each beat a snippet of wisdom from a leading scientific or cultural personality.

The voice that emerges from the film is DiCaprio"s.

It is designed to leave the audience emboldened and empowered — feeling that the 11th hour, the one before the collapse, will be "our finest hour," as the star narrates near the end. The movie succeeds despite a virtual mirroring of that formula — 11/12ths doom and gloom, and 1/12th can-do problem-solving optimism, and despite some other flaws that will turn off some audiences.

The movie opens with that heart beat

metronome, timed to coincide with a string of images—the beautiful, the biological, the political, the cultural, the spiritual and the industrial. (As a comment on the zeitgeist, it is telling: A simple car tailpipe and a thick slab of red meat feel as ominous as a towering industrial smokestack or the requisite clubbing of a baby seal.)

The movie’s brisk pace, as it attempts to tie together these various concepts into a cohesive web, is both its strength and weakness.

As authoritative as the cast is, none are given time enough to fully make any one argument, as the movie bounces from voice to voice.

The scientific facts are mashed up with mystical and cultural assertions in an approach that can leave the viewer at times feeling that the global environmental crisis has less to do with the abundance of carbon in the atmosphere, the collapse of ecosystems or toxic pollution—and more to do with the scarcity of love in our hearts. And some concepts — did you know that mushrooms are being primed to save the earth?—seem to be given extraordinary weight, given the pace of the movie as a whole. DiCaprio even suggests near the conclusion that "conscious evolution"—a phrase that if taken literally would offend any scientist worth her salt—is the path toward a clean green future.

But this is Hollywood, after all, not science class. (The writer/producer/narrator, unlike his cast, can get by on three little letters in media headlines.)

The scattershot firing of statements by scientists about the sorry state of the world and its industrial causes, and of statements by cultural thought-leaders about its spiritual causes, has the potential to hit the mark with a variety of audiences. Urbanites who feel disconnected with nature, suburbanites feeling anxiety about "consumerism Democracy," lefties disheartened by "corporate economic globalization," terrorism hawks concerned about global warming’s effect on national security, multicultural lovers concerned about the global community—every type is represented.

Because no one speaker lays out his or her own full argument, the voice that emerges from the film is Leo"s. It’s his statement, spoken through many voices.

And in its Hollywood-esque documentary style, it succeeds the way great post-modern speeches succeed—not necessarily by careful point-by-point argument, but by sound bite-by-sound bite persuasion about the need to care, the need to act and the availability of solutions. The film’s test will be whether or not the filmmaker’s sense of possibility infects his audience.

CONTACTS: The 11th Hour; The 11th Hour Action

DAN SHAPLEY is the News Editor for, where this review first appeared.