Review: Time to Choose, 2016, dir. Charles Ferguson

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Does Charles Ferguson’s Time to Choose count as pro-environmental propaganda? That’s a loaded label to sling at any film, especially a well-intentioned documentarian attempt at courting our sense of obligation to our planet. The Earth’s slow-burn ruination is one of humanity’s great shames, after all; we’re the ones gutting its depths, scarring its face, and choking its atmosphere so we can get a little extra charge on our iPhones and extra helpings of bacon on our burgers. But if Time to Choose is a righteous movie, it is occasionally self-righteous, and it’s short on the balance of opposing perspectives. Maybe there’s a point to that: Maybe hearing from the other side in the fight for Earth’s preservation would stymie the film’s noble purpose.

Or maybe the people on the “other side” are just craven scumbags. “We contacted dozens of fossil fuel executives and lobbyists while making this film,” a title card boasts about forty minutes into Time to Choose’s ninety minute running time. “Not a single one agreed to be interviewed.” Well, how about that? Crooks don’t want to incriminate themselves on camera. Imagine what kind of film Time to Choose would be if Ferguson had somehow convinced Don Blankenship to sit down for a one on one and grilled him about his business practices and his thoughts on our environmental crises; pulling up stock footage of the coal magnate’s public comments about global warming  is one thing, but actually giving the man a stage on which to damn himself is another entirely. Oh, what might have been.

No matter. Time to Choose is the film that it is, a call to action and a discomfiting glance at how industrialized lifestyles all around the globe are killing the world with increased alacrity. It’s a film about good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, with Blankenship joining the likes of James Inhofe, Rex Tillerson, Eka Tjipta Widjaja, and Blairo Maggi in a clash against a league of environmentalist champions that includes Jaime Lerner, Jane Goodall, Oronto Douglas, and Mary Nichols among many, many others. (Unsurprisingly, Ferguson had no difficulty securing interviews with scientists, entrepreneurs, activists, and lawyers to discuss climate change. They aren’t guilty of violating environmental laws and scorching the Earth to line their pockets.)

Most of all the film is about problems and solutions, which it ties together with Oscar Isaac’s silky, tranquil narrations. Ferguson divides Time to Choose into chapters, each comprised of a specific threat to the environment – burning coal, agricultural deforestation – coupled with that threat’s specific solution, or solutions, from reducing our consumption of meat to embracing alternative forms of energy. In either mode the film does not disguise its intentions; it’s Scared Straight! for climate change. We can fix everything that’s broken in our urban societies and save the Earth, but if we don’t, hoo boy. The air we breathe will knock years off of our lifespans. We’ll run out of space to grow crops. Drinkable water will become scarce. We’re looking at a future that makes Mad Max: Fury Road look like an afternoon romp in a playground sandbox.

If all of that sounds dire, well, that’s because it is, try as climate change deniers might to argue otherwise. But Time to Choose undermines its own exigence with melodrama. A film about the literal end of the world need not be this self-insistent to illustrate its points or make them felt; even skeptical viewers would be hard pressed to look at Ferguson’s images of charred treelines, sludge dams, and smog-choked cityscapes without shivering. Ferguson, however, instructs us how to feel through overwrought scoring. “The Indonesian government owns these forests, and has promised to protect them,” Isaac says of Indonesia’s peat swamps, “which is exactly the problem.” Cue music right out of Hans Zimmer’s playbook. You half expect to see the Joker wheeling around the smoldering glades, cackling and hooting as the camera swoops overhead.

Between the film’s desperate pleas and grave admonitions, Ferguson fails to tell a story. He goes too broad in his focus and never looks for a throughline from one section to the next; he has made an info-dump instead of a movie. As info-dumps go, Time to Choose is rather thorough, which in all likelihood is all that it absolutely must be. If you go into the film ignorant, you’ll come out of it enlightened. Ferguson has no other motive than elucidation. He launches salvos of statistics and research married with reporting and eyewitness anecdotes. The combined power of Ferguson’s educational ordnance is provably effective, whether you’re a member of his choir or an uninitiated parishioner hearing him preach for the first time.

At its best, Time to Choose incentivizes its audience to adapt and change for the sake of the planet. At its worst, it’s languid and conventional. For a more fiery and impassioned address on the same subject, try listening to Al Gore’s recent TEDTalk, in which he makes a sermon about the bright future of renewable energy with vim and vigor. (Note: If an Al Gore speech is more exciting than your movie, then you have done something terribly, terribly wrong.) All the same, Time to Choose feels essential; it’s a necessary chore for expanding our minds, an important piece of moviegoing homework. You won’t feel good after sitting through it, but maybe you’ll be persuaded to adopt the dream of a better, brighter tomorrow as your own. 

**1/2

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