Looking to shed light on one small part of a larger hot-button environmental debate, documentarian John Fiege’s “Above All Else” chronicles a 2012 grassroots fight in East Texas to halt TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline. While the Obama administration continues to delay a critical decision on whether or not to allow the pipeline (which would transport oil extracted from Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast) to cross the U.S.-Canada border, the project’s opponents and supporters remain locked in a passionate battle. So it’s somewhat disappointing that the limited scope of Fiege’s verite docu doesn’t have a whole lot to add to the current conversation. Nevertheless, the pic’s central David-and-Goliath conflict and romanticized portrayal of environmental activism should attract enough interest from green-leaning audiences to secure a niche release.
The literal David here is David Daniel, a former competitive gymnast, circus performer and stuntman who puts up a mighty fight against corporate titan TransCanada when he discovers the planned pipeline would cross his property. Far from the only resident to raise objections, Daniel instead proves to be one of the most ornery and committed. Working in collaboration with volunteer activist group Tar Sands Blockade, Daniel helps construct an elaborate tree-sit on his property to prevent construction crews from clearing the area and moving forward. With a plainspoken family man demeanor and unforced love of nature Daniel is a prototypical Everyman hero, and an obvious choice to build a movie around, at least initially.
“Above All Else” is most effective at detailing the alternately dispiriting and frightening fashion in which Daniel, and many of his neighbors, are intimidated and manipulated into giving up some or all of their rights as property owners. Given the never-ending assault of financial incentives, legal threats and declarations of eminent domain from their deep-pocketed opponents, it clearly takes considerable determination — and perhaps a degree of naivete — to even attempt to fight back.
What’s less clear is exactly what the protestors are fighting for. Fiege keeps information about the pipeline and the murky science involving tar sands oil to a minimum, relying mostly on an oft-quoted line from NASA scientist James Hansen that tar sands extraction means “game over for the climate.” That approach works when the film is focused on the personal stories of Daniel and his fellow residents, who are upset with TransCanada’s duplicitous behavior, the project’s impact on their land and the negative consequences for the environment. There’s a righteous anger to their actions, summed up by Daniel’s observation, “TransCanada considers our lives ‘low consequence.'”
The lack of bigger-picture context becomes more problematic when Fiege switches to the largely interchangeable young men and women of the Tar Sands Blockade. They proudly step up for the tree-sit, repeatedly thank Daniel for his support, compare themselves to heroes from “Lord of the Rings” and their treetop platforms to the Ewok village from “Return of the Jedi,” but always feel like interlopers in a more intimate story. As one member admits, “We’re college kids and we really didn’t think about strategy.” That leaves the film stuck in an uncomfortable middle ground between generic eco-warrior doc and compelling portrait of organic, homegrown activism.
Ideological balance isn’t a consideration here, and there’s no attempt to include the opinions of pipeline supporters in the mix. TransCanada is represented exclusively through slick marketing materials and glib soundbites from CEO Russ Girling intended to have viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief. Repetitive use of clips from progressive news show “Democracy Now!” leaves no confusion about the pic’s political p.o.v.
Fiege serves as both director and primary cameraman, most impressively when it comes to capturing footage from the tree sit-in nearly one hundred feet in the air. Other tech credits are adequate.