This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage.
It’s been 16 years since Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth premiered at Sundance. In those 16 years, the climate change the documentary warned about has become a defining political issue across the world. But the progress towards addressing global warming has mostly been mired in warring political and economic ideology, with legislation shot down and commitments to decarbonize increasingly flexible. Conservatives, not even just hardliners, have made it a badge of honor to brazenly value the dollar over the word of scientists. The result? The last eight years have been the warmest ever recorded. Director Rachel Lears returns to the political sphere, after highlighting the congressional campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more in Knock Down the House, with To the End, which follows the Representative and a slew of activists as they attempt to save the planet one bill at a time.
The film’s messy and energetic structure tracks the Green New Deal, a jobs ‘n’ justice resolution introduced by AOC and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, from its origination to its place as a major campaign issue in the 2020 presidential election to its defanging as an aspect of the Build Back Better Act. The vibrating core of it all are the stressed-out young progressives helping to set the agenda: Varshini Prakash, Alexandra Rojas and Rhiana Gunn-Wright—leaders of the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats and the Roosevelt Institute. Watching the grassroots politicking of these women and their organizations is by turns inspiring and ulcer-inducing, because it’s crucial work that they’re putting entirely upon their own shoulders.
They’re all stressed out, and with good reason. Over the course of To the End, their optimism takes a pummelling. We see another one of those small, winnable Congressional races that Knock Down the House focused on, where progressives—notably, younger women of color—could upset establishment incumbents. The candidate loses by a single-digit percent. We see Bernie Sanders—just as charming and idealistic as you want him to be in a few behind-the-scenes clips—wholeheartedly embrace the Green New Deal as part of his primary platform. Joe Biden dispatches him, then sees his more moderate approach to environmental reform stifled by his own party. The main culprit is West Virginia Senator and alleged Democrat Joe Manchin, perhaps the biggest slut for fossil fuel financing in the United States government, whose repeated appearances on Fox News underscore his political confusion. As is clear to all the frustrated activists who swarm his car in protest, the old bastard is an Earth-burning conservative.
That’s clear because, as is shown in only a little more detail than the actual increasing dangers faced by the planet, climate change has been a political rather than scientific issue—specifically in the United States—since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. A shortsighted love of cash and hatred of everyone that isn’t currently lining their pockets is presented as the mundane forces driving this misanthropic ignorance. What do conservatives care about the future? They’ll be dead and their children can die aboard their inherited yachts.
Throughout, Lears is all over the place. When To the End focuses on climate change deniers, it can be cathartically searing. When it returns to the activists, their activities—tearily recovering from disappointments, loosely brainstorming high-level ideals, desperately running around doing door-to-doors—highlight their youth and enhance a feeling of futility in the face of such unmitigated greed. It barely touches on the links between the climate crisis, racial justice and the inherent exploitation of the industries ruining the environment, assuming that its audience already knows much of the pertinent details. It’s not a commercial for the Green New Deal, nor another Gore-driven PowerPoint to convince naysayers that the climate is in crisis. Rather, it ends up being a shattering showcase for those battering themselves upon the beachhead.
Some of the images Lears shoots with handheld cameras, drones and more possess a certain irony that underlines this depressing fatalism. A Glacier-brand ice vending machine stands alone among the burned-out wreckage of a grocery store. As the activists fight to fix their global crisis, another—COVID-19—complicates everything right in the heat of battle. They are perhaps those who knew best how the country would deal with a large-scale, science-dependent crisis that could be handled by consistent and dedicated lifestyle changes. They also knew who would suffer from it the worst. A hint: It’s not wealthy white Republicans.
Climate denial doesn’t have the often immediate and morbid ramifications as COVID denial, which makes To the End’s broad and somewhat impotent anger especially unsatisfying. While it attempts to find some optimism—Gunn-Wright willing to bring a young child into an uncertain future, AOC on a camping trip in the nature she’s trying so badly to save—the gripping yet scattershot assessment of the State of Climate Change Legislation doesn’t leave much for the informed to hold onto. But for those just joining the movement, its vigorous moments of inspiration might still be enough.
Director: Rachel Lears
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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