"It's the economy, stupid." This bit of conventional wisdom holds true for those trying to win public office, but when it comes to the longevity of the human race, it's the environment, stupid. A growing number of concerned citizens have taken up this message, some employing motion pictures like Chasing Ice to be worth thousands of words.
Jeff Orlowski's documentary feature uses emotional appeal and a measure of science to provide what it characterizes as definitive evidence of global warming. Orlowski follows James Balog, a photographer with a Master's degree in geomorphology. Balog's commitment to environmental photography has, of late, refocused primarily on melting glaciers, which Balog calls "the canary in the global coal mine."
Orlowski observes Balog at work with his Extreme Ice Survey, a project recording receding ice-lines and crumbling glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. The presentation of Balog's often hauntingly beautiful imagery—and the fully committed approach he takes to capturing it—go a long way toward the photographer's career mission of reconnecting city dwellers to our presence in and interaction with nature. Now driven to promote environmental crisis management, Balog muses, "The story is in the ice—somehow." As artwork, each photo is unique, but as far as being an argument for global warming, if you've seen one melting glacier, you've seen them all, which might account for Chasing Ice's compact 76-minute running time.
Orlowski makes up the balance partly with a smattering of talking-head commentary paying too-brief lip service to the science of global warming and the effects of global climate change. Mostly, though, the film hero-worships Balog, a passionate and talented artist whose work has taken a physical toll (also one who gives off whiffs of self-congratulation and vanity).
The facts show that global warming is a reality of the status quo, but facts aren't always enough. Balog explains that his work has led him to a more "seductive approach" in depicting nature to man. It's anyone's guess whether hardcore deniers would be convinced by anything, including dramatic time-lapse record of disappearing glaciers, though the film provides anecdotal examples (one interviewee offers that he quit his job, at Shell Oil, on viewing Balog's evidence).
Chasing Ice stakes its claim on that seductive approach, and while more detailed scientific analysis and greater discussion of impacts would have been welcome, the film's visual rhetoric is solid. Plus, Balog talks of taking environmental action for the sake of his daughters, a gesture likely to make hearts melt as quickly as glaciers.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]