In his time in the public eye, Leonard DiCaprio has never hidden the two passions that drive him – winning an Oscar and raising awareness about climate change. Now that he’s finally got that golden statuette, DiCaprio has placed his focus on the realities of climate change with his new documentary Before the Flood. DiCaprio teams with director Fisher Stevens in examining the issue through the actor’s eyes as he jets around the world viewing the devastation first hand and talking to various experts in trying to understand the exact threat the planet is facing as well as possible solutions to growing the problem.
Let’s not beat around the bush, Before the Flood is a vanity project, one where DiCaprio places himself front and center as he uses his profile to boost his message while coming across as thoughtful and concerned. To his credit, the actor is willing to admit his own ignorance on some of the larger nuances to the mounting concerns surrounding climate. There is something admirable about DiCaprio using his fame to shed light on an important issue facing every living soul on Earth, but while Before the Flood has its earnest merits, it also falls into many of the traps that befall many activist documentaries. Obviously, DiCaprio and Stevens are trying to aim this film at regular folks, hoping to slowly shift public attitudes towards action. Regardless of intent or factual truth, Before the Flood won’t do much in weakening the emboldened political opposition to any climate action, and will likely seize on the fact that a highly paid actor is trying to advocate that Americans undergo some form of lifestyle change, no matter how modest.
Before the Flood works at its best when DiCaprio is speaking with experts who have an eye for pondering solutions to the problem. One of the more fascinating proposals is by famed billionaire Elon Musk, who is working on a massive structure called the Gigafactory, a massive battery factory that will consist solely of renewable energy. Another oft-cited cause of climate change are the emissions from cattle. Wisely, DiCaprio doesn’t advocate abstaining from beef, but speaks with an expert who advocates slightly reducing beef consumption, using data to prove that chicken, for example, uses less land and emits fewer gases into the atmosphere. The thinking that a combination of big and little actions could lead to positive change is the film’s chief virtue.
The most persuasive argument that Before the Flood highlights is the need for a carbon tax, which would put a price on carbon emissions. The idea behind it is simple: by placing a cost on carbon emissions, it’ll lead to a more significant change in behaviors than appeals to alter habits out social consciousness. It’s an idea that works on both sides of the aisle if you’re willing to believe that climate change is a real issue, which a large political faction of America refuses to acknowledge.
Where Before the Flood runs into trouble is through its attempts to frame the issues through a partisan political lens. It’s more than apparent to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that if you have any concerns about climate change you don’t have a home with the Republican Party. But DiCaprio and Stevens spends a fair amount of time examining the Republican obstructionism on all matters climate, even going as far to remind everyone that the Koch Brothers are bankrolling all sorts of political efforts and pseudoscience. This is all very obvious stuff to even the most passive political observer.
Before the Flood touts the Paris Agreement, a UN resolution between multiple nations agreeing to decrease their carbon emissions. Leo himself is called before the assembled nations and gives a passionate speech about the noble efforts of the agreement and where it falls woefully short. Meanwhile, it’s an agreement that has no consequences for anyone that breaks it, making it nothing more than a symbolic gesture from the United Nations.
DiCaprio really gets into trouble when he tries to tie to overwhelming issues of climate change with his own life and his work in the movies. “I feel like I’m in some surreal movie,” he says at one point. Before the Flood is kind of surreal as this Oscar-winning movie star talks to dignitaries, scientists, and world leaders about climate change only to have his film circle it back to his own work because they had to move the shoot of The Revenant due to low snowfall in the initial location. The actor is willing to admit that his own lifestyle has probably led to a larger carbon footprint than the average American, and leaves the film with the unintentionally comedic mixture of self-awareness and dopey earnestness. This is really apparent when he says about the constant attacks climate scientists face from the right, “If I was a scientist, I’d be pissed off each and every day of my life.”
For all the faults of Before the Flood, it does do a nice job of placing a growing global concern in context, with Leonardo DiCaprio using his fame and fortune to show the devastation around the world – from disappearing glaciers in the Arctic Circle to burned down forests in Indonesia. DiCaprio also uses his prominence to gain an audience with people like President Obama and Pope Francis, each with their own concerns about the climate. But despite all of its good intentions and fairly impressive execution, it’s still a vanity project that puts its concerned movie star front and center. He’s out to prove that he’s a serious man with serious thoughts about serious issues. What Before the Flood is missing is a message that will reach the vocal opposition to the issue of climate change. You can talk about a problem, present evidence that the problem is serious until we’re all blue in the face. But the opposition refuses to acknowledge there is a problem, and that’s something Before the Flood just can’t fix. It’s something no movie can fix. Whether you’re a world leader or a mega-movie star, there’s little change to be made from preaching to the choir.
Before the Flood airs on National Geographic Channel on October 30th at 9PM.
Before the Flood
An activist documentary from Leonardo DiCaprio and director Fisher Stevens, Before the Flood is a plea for action on the issue of climate change and simultaneously a vanity project where a movie star highlights his social consciousness.