Shortlisted last year for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, the critically acclaimed Chasing Ice was by far the most existentially devastating documentary of 2012. But its viscerally emotional vistas and Manhattan-sized collapses were passed over by the Academy this year in favor of five other films, none of which have to do with what Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski told me was “the most important issue we’re ever going to have to deal with as a civilization.”
“A nomination would be an incredible longshot,” Orlowski told me by phone as 2012 came to a close. “But our hope is that it would bring a lot of significant attention to climate change, because this is the issue of our time.”
Fast forward a few months later, and you’ll find an Academy more captivated by documentaries about intractable, important conflicts. But in the planetary big picture, they are dwarfed by the exponential ravages of global warming dramatically shown in Chasing Ice, which documents National Geographic photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, whose embedded time-lapse cameras visualized astounding Arctic ice loss for the world to see. In formal cinematic terms, it easily competes with the films that leapt off the shortlist and into the Oscars proper.
In terms of bringing invaluable awareness and mobilization — to say nothing of apocalyptic entertainment — to an American public and government waking way too slowly to the mammoth environmental challenge of our time, Chasing Ice remains peerless. After all, it was only a few years ago that both the Academy and attending talent gushed over Best Documentary winner An Inconvenient Truth, whose charismatic lead Al Gore argued during an acceptance speech with director Davis Guggenheim that, “We need to solve the climate crisis. It’s not a political issue; it’s a moral issue.”
The moral and political weight of Chasing Ice was apparent even to followers of climate change deniers like Fox News. In last year’s viral YouTube clip “Chasing Ice, Changing Lives,” one shaken Bill O’Reilly viewer vocally and vigorously changed her mind on global warming. “That’s what we’re seeing on a daily basis,” Orlowski added. “People come to us and tell us the film changed their lives.”
But don’t call the Academy’s oversight of the deserving Chasing Ice an Oscar snub, as Monty Python grad Eric Idle recently reminded me over Twitter. The film secured an Original Song nomination for “Before My Time,” from composer J. Ralph, who also created the documentary’s haunting score. One of only three documentary songs ever nominated — including An Inconvenient Truth’s “I Need to Wake Up,” which won Melissa Etheridge an Oscar for Original Song — the visibility of “Before My Time” was perhaps enhanced by accompaniment from acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell and vocalist Scarlett Johansson, whom you may have heard of.
“I am profoundly honored to receive a nomination, especially for this documentary,” Ralph told me this week, as the Oscar ceremony ramped up with buzz on whether Johansson would perform the song. “I was really inspired by the images and wanted to write a song that created a hypnotic and transportive experience with the images. Something that could allow the listener to absorb and reflect on all that they had seen in the film, as if Scarlett was singing to each person individually,” he says. “I can only hope that the visibility of the nomination brings more awareness to climate change and helps people feel the magnitude of what is happening to the planet.” And while this seems like a tall order, “the reality is we don’t need much change,” Orlowski says. “All we need to change is where our energy comes from.”
But history is rife with no-brainer transformations that took way too many years and cost way too many lives before momentum shifted in the correct direction. It’s disappointing that as tens of thousands descended on the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and its dirty tar-sands cargo, President Obama was off golfing with oil barons. Or that the federal government just shaved $3.4 billion off of damages British Petroleum owes for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Orlowski likens America’s fossil-fuel addiction to its addiction to the slave-labor economy that allowed it to explode and thrive. But slavery only ended, at least on paper, after the Civil War‘s monumental spasms of violence and greed. Since the turn of the century, the fossil-fuel industry has hoarded trillions, which they liberally invest in maintaining the status quo. It’s likely they’re not going down without an equally apocalyptic fight.
When it comes to the status quo, Hollywood has lately seemed more interested in fortifying than annihilating it. Especially compared to its more activist ’70s, when Oscar-winners like The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Norma Rae spoke brave truth to power about war and labor. And those were the dramas, while today’s documentaries are something of a last refuge for socially conscious cinema. So while the Academy’s present nomination for “Before My Time” is a courteous nod to Chasing Ice and runaway global warming, it feels like little else but that.
With a field of intriguing but more microscopic films landing in the Academy’s distracted spotlight, a cynic might go so far as to suggest that Chasing Ice was nominated to wring publicity from a live, onstage performance by Johansson. That would be, as they say in the biz, a show-stopper. Quite like Johansson’s comics-based blockbuster The Avengers, which owned 2012’s global box-office, thanks to a climactic throwdown in Manhattan that threatened to annihilate the entire city.
So it’s more than ironic that Chasing Ice — a documentary about our real-time apocalypse, featuring an iceberg the size of Manhattan disappearing within an hour — couldn’t appeal to an Academy in search of true-life heroes and villains. It’s morally painful, and artfully hypocritical.