Crunchier than a vegetable oil-burning big rig dragging a trailer load of Grape-Nuts, “Fields of Fuel” addresses the issue of alternative energy and biofuels with its own kind of forward momentum — as well as a great sense of self-congratulation from helmer/eco-crusader Josh Tickell. Chapter headings seem to anticipate serialization or commercial interruptions; theatrical seems as likely as Saudi Arabia switching to solar power. But film’s sentiments are clean and very, very green.
Personalizing the issue doc is a proven tactic, although Tickell takes it one — no, two — steps further: “This is my story,” says Tickell, who proceeds to frame his entire film as a response to his childhood in bucolic Melbourne and the trauma of being relocated to Louisiana, where the water was essentially poison. His occupation of the center ring for most of the film will prove off-putting, especially to viewers who know something about the issues and don’t need a primer on advanced biofuels — Tickell’s option of choice for the future of modern transportation. More people than not probably are in need of an elementary education in the state of the ecology, but it’s unclear whether those people are the target of this movie.
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Tickell lards “Fields of Fuel” with celebrities and rock standards (when the Grateful Dead emerged on the soundtrack, all suspicions were confirmed). “Dallas’ star Larry Hagman appears, doing penance for his oil-worshipping ’80s TV series. Neil Young and Willie Nelson pour reclaimed fast-food oil into their tour bus. Woody Harrelson, longtime advocate of hemp, makes a statement, too.
Tickell knows how to grab an audience that’s either indifferent or disinclined to partake of the debate over America’s oil dependence and makes the substantial point that reliance on the Middle East and OPEC makes the country more vulnerable than it would if it moved into alternative fuels. “Oil is the lifeblood of our society,” he says, before mounting a good argument about why that doesn’t have to be.
Still, the air of PSA hovers around “Fields of Fuel,” and Tickell gives himself too many attaboys for it not to be distracting. He also seems to take Hurricane Katrina as a personal affront to his work as an eco-warrior, which is a bit unseemly.
“Fields of Fuel” is benign propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless. It also follows a proven strategy in the school of disaster doc: Establish that the world is, indeed, coming to an end, get the viewer out on the figurative ledge and then reassure him or her via the small triumphs of activist groups, swelling, heroic music and information about how people can get involved, so one leaves the theater less than suicidal.
It’s all for a good cause. Whether it’s cinema is another question.