Stylish and substantial enough to prompt even a couch potato to action, Kelly Duane’s “Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America” delivers a stirring and visually dense account of the life and times of Brower, the key post-WWII American environmental activist and a driving force behind the Sierra Club. The ample display here of 16mm film shot by the late Brower in the Western wilderness virtually makes him a co-director alongside Duane, whose feeling for her subject will make this an essential fest entry and an evergreen public TV programmer.
Fabulously styled graphics (care of Los Angeles-based design firm Syrup) provide basic details, including that Brower became the Sierra Club’s first exec director 60 years after John Muir founded the group in 1892, and that his footage used in pic was shot between 1930 and 1970, while his vocal commentary was recorded between 1970 and 1978.
Far from its current position as a leading environmentalist lobbying force, the club began as a loose group of hikers especially attracted to the rock-climbing challenges in Yosemite Valley. A trek up the awesomely craggy Shiprock in New Mexico is recalled by Brower pal John Dyer as one of those things young guys do for a thrill.
On his pleasant hikes, Brower found a fine photographic teacher in Ansel Adams, who encouraged him to fiddle with a small movie camera and record his Sierra idylls. During WWII, Brower’s mountaineering skills became useful to the Army in Italy, where he participated in some daring raids. But after the war, the activist in Brower was awakened by a relentless march west by developers and the Army Corps of Engineers, whose government-sponsored projects first made a personal impact on Brower when a road was built through Yosemite’s unspoiled eastern side.
“Monumental” is attuned to the details that reveal the man. For example, Brower wasn’t opposed to all roads, just paved ones; by entering Yosemite via dirt roads, he thought, you earned your way into paradise.
Busy with a family of four but alarmed by a nation paving itself over, Brower became the Sierra Club’s topper in 1952. Shrewdly, he produced informative films and guided river trips to show the beauty of a remote Utah wilderness area threatened by a proposed dam. Today, that area is the Dinosaur National Monument.
The radicalization of Yank ecologists, and certainly Brower, may be traced to the 1956 building of the Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado River, which the Army Corps determined would serve as a giant water source for growth in the West. Brower’s footage of the canyon lensed just months before dam was erected is pic’s most haunting section — a view of natural beauty now totally submerged underneath a man-made lake.
Wilderness footage makes pic richly cinematic, but it’s not merely inserted. A crack team of gifted editors (experimental cineaste Nathaniel Dorsky, Anne Flatte and Tony Saxe) and a wondrous soundtrack of various bands playing dreamy rock give Brower’s and friend Martin Litton’s lensing a blissful lift.
The ’60s are shown to have been Brower’s crowning time — he effectively saved much of the Grand Canyon, no less, from dams, and personally steered Lady Bird Johnson into a populist brand of environmentalism that made his cause downright patriotic. Pic provides only a short look at Brower’s post-Sierra Club years, when he founded the Earth Island Institute and kept to a much tougher line of ecology activism.
While “Monumental” makes an irrefutable case that Brower was one of the ’60s giant figures, Duane recognizes that his strong personality rubbed many folks the wrong way, including his closest Sierra Club allies.
In the end, the memories of Litton, former Interior secretary Stewart Udall, children Ken and Barbara and old enemies like Floyd Dominy give this portrait a human dimension.