“An Inconvenient Truth,” the epochal Al Gore/Davis Guggenheim documentary about climate change (which back then was still routinely called global warming), came out 10 years ago last week. There have been any number of climate-change docs since, and none of them has summoned anything like the impact of Gore’s seismic cinematic lecture. But one of the few nonfiction filmmakers who’s come close to inspiring that level of conversation — on any subject — is Charles Ferguson, who directed the definitive, awards-showered Iraq War doc “No End in Sight” (2007) and also “Inside Job” (2010), his penetratingly skeptical, ahead-of-the-curve look at the 2008 financial meltdown and its aftermath.
“Time to Choose” is only Ferguson’s third feature, and his first in five years, and given that it’s his own highly ambitious inquiry into climate change, you’d think that it would be something of an event. But “Time to Choose” enters a different documentary marketplace than the one that defined “An Inconvenient Truth” or “No End in Sight.” The thirst for nonfiction hasn’t disappeared, but the way that we consume documentaries has been splintered and fragmented, multiplied and — in another sense — diminished. “Time to Choose” is opening with a notable absence of fanfare, and it’s hard not to wonder if the very subject of climate change has produced a kind of Chicken Little syndrome. The global temperature is rising! The ice sheets are melting! The world is ending! But do I really have to see another movie about it?
At this point, climate-change fatigue seems an understandable — if not exactly justifiable — emotion. Yet “Time to Choose,” while it isn’t structured to be the slap-in-the-face wake-up call that “An Inconvenient Truth” was, is still a film that shapes and alters your perceptions. Narrated in a tone of calm insurgency by Oscar Isaac, it’s not out to rehash every piece of evidence that man-made climate change is happening, or that its effects are potentially catastrophic. In quick strokes, it reminds us why the rise in carbon dioxide levels degrades the air and the seas in ways that are already starting to devastate the planet. (Some, as a result, may call the film “one-sided.” But most scientists would not.) Really, though, the movie is a dive into what the future — of the earth, of energy consumption, of our lives — is going to look like. It’s about how inconvenience gives way to inevitability.
Ferguson has a background in academia and technology, and in 1996 he became an Internet multi-millionaire when he sold his website-development company to Microsoft; he works with a freedom of economy and scale that most documentary directors don’t have. One of the intriguing aspects of his born-again career — he was 52 when “No End in Sight” was released — is that he embraced the fullness of being a filmmaker, using the possibility of creating a movie not just as a way of dispensing information but as a rounded visual-dramatic experience. He became an aesthetician of truth. That has never been more so than in “Time to Choose,” which creates a flow of indelible images. Ferguson traveled the globe to film eye-popping landscapes of the natural world, which sounds like it might be precious, as though he were shooting a lush environmental calendar, but he doesn’t linger, and the revelation is that in image after image, he also reveals the destruction of the natural world.
We see, from sweeping helicopter shots, the shocking, shaved-earth aftermath of mountaintop removal, or billowing midnight oil fires that look as vast as hurricanes, or the toxic horror of the coal-sludge impoundments of Appalachia, or — in shots that were done surreptitiously, since the penalty for taking them is five years in prison — what the peatlands of Indonesia now look like. They are forests that used to absorb more carbon than all the rest of the world’s forests combined, but they are now being razed by the government and sold to corporations that want to mine the area for palm oil (which goes into everything from cookies to cleaning products).
The destruction of the Brazilian rain forests, so obsessed over in the ’80s, now sounds quaint next to the global epidemic of deforestation that is captured in “Time to Choose.” The image of an ecosystem that is collapsing in slow motion; of the global pollution wrought by the mining of fossil fuels — these are charged topics that have been fought over for years, yet Ferguson lets us take in the issue through the evidence of our senses. His images sear themselves into your imagination. “Time to Choose” may come off, at moments, like the “Koyaanisqatsi” of environmental devastation, but it is also a dreadfully beautiful achievement. It shows us what the building blocks of climate change look like.
It also points to a way out. The movie is structured as a meditation, and there are times it’s a little flat; there may simply be a limit to how much excitement there is in watching someone like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu say, with notable matter-of-factness, “I don’t think most citizens in the world have really grasped what is happening, and what the risks are. Many of our major cities will be submerged.” Yet he may be right: When it comes to climate change, the majority of people — even those of us who aren’t skeptics — live in something of a denial, because the whole thing, let’s be honest, is terribly abstract.
Ferguson’s biggest news flash — and he provides a truckload of evidence for it — is that renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which have been mocked for years as well-meaning but minor hippie-dippy solutions, have become a ruthlessly competitive economic alternative. They are now cheaper than fossil fuels, and the film makes a potent case that the reason we aren’t using more of them is that big oil simply doesn’t want it that way. The fossil-fuel companies, whether in the United States or China (a nation so hooked on coal that it is poisoning itself), control the government, the propaganda, the thinking. It’s their way or no way. “Time to Choose” says: There is another way. Like “An Inconvenient Truth,” the movie provides its audience with impassioned dollops of information, but more than that it simply asks us to open our eyes.