Review: ‘How To Change The World’ looks at the birth of Greenpeace with some stumbles

There are good ideas aplenty in Jerry Rothwell's “How To Change The World,” which earned an Opening Night slot at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and will be part of the World Documentary Competition.

Although its heroes are the founders of Greenpeace and pioneers of the modern environmental movement, “How To Change The World” isn't a blindly unquestioning piece of hero-worship. It's a warts-and-all look at idealism realized, idealism diverted and the fallibility of people with those highest of ideals.

Rothwell's film has interesting ideas about the power of propaganda and the manufacturing of a political movement. It also has impressive participation from the available principles in the movement, many of whom have changed perspectives intriguingly in the 40 years since the instigating events in the story, events that astoundingly well-documented at the time.

The back-and-forth between the self-representation of the early Greenpeace home movies and Rothwell's contemporary check-in offer both insight and dramatic irony and would seem to provide “How To Change The World” with all the structure it could possibly need.

Somehow, though, Rothwell doesn't realize which things are or aren't holding his film together and he imposes a number of extra, barely motivating devices onto the documentary, resulting in a jumble of tones and structure that leave “How To Change The World” feeling at least an hour longer than its already wearisome 115 minutes.

I liked “How To Change The World” more than I initially thought I might, but less than I probably could have if its focus had lived up to its potential.

[More after the break.]

“How To Change The World” starts in Vancouver in 1970, as a community of Canadian hippies, American draft dodgers, artists, scientists and nascent activists proves a fertile breeding ground for a maritime protest against Richard Nixon's atomic bomb tests in Amchitka, Alaska. The friends combine the green of environmentalism with the anti-war peace sign and name their rickety vessel Greenpeace.

There was an older generation of leaders on the boat, but the focus is on the young turks, who are introduced one-by-one in the context of the Amchitka protests and then sitting down for interviews in the present. They find welcome humor in looking back at Greenpeace's unsteady beginnings and Rothwell enjoys adding to the humor with the old film footage of the motley crew. As we see Greenpeace evolve in the '70s, moving from anti-war protests to advocating on behalf of whales, seals and more, we also begin to sense how these men (and a couple women) have changed, some becoming more mellow, some more liberal and at least one more reactionary.

The historical back-and-forth is structure enough, but the late Bob Hunter's myriad writings, well-narrated by Barry Pepper, also push the story forward. While Bob is absent in the present, his words put him between his increasingly militant lieutenant Paul Watson and his more intellectual lieutenant Patrick Moore. Even if you know nothing at all about the history of Greenpeace, you know that there's a conflict coming between these two. It should be a propulsive story engine. [The gradual assembling of the aging hippies in the doc's opening moments practically begs for some sort of reunion for members of the original Greenpeace. Even if you know that Moore and Watson probably weren't going to break bread just for the sake of a documentary, some other reunions are practically demanded. They don't happen. I don't know if the reunion is teased by the early editing or if it's just wishful thinking on my part.]

Why, then, if the jumping between past and future keeps a chronological monotony from setting in, does Rothwell feel the need to add a superfluous and often confusing structural device in the form of a series of “Rules” relating to the doc's title? I really don't know if the rules are taken from Hunter's writing. It seems possible, but they aren't delivered in Pepper voice-over, so it's possible that Rothwell just thought that people wouldn't be able to figure out, um, “How To Change The World” if they weren't offered tangible rules.

The problem? There are only five of them, they aren't necessarily evenly distributed and, worst of all, they're not even all rules for how to change the world. “Fear success” is not a way to change the world and “The revolution will not be organized” either a warning or a case-specific banality. There is no information contained in these “rules” that is useful, no structural benefit to their inclusion and their mere presence is a reminder of the passage of cinematic time, forcing me to look at my watch and wonder how many more rules we were going to get an how many rules would be cumulatively worth the effort. Rothwell could go back in, trim the rules entirely and nothing would be lost and I'm sure the flow would gain.

But there are a number of little quirks that must have seemed like a good idea in the moment, but then didn't really pay off. 

In the initial narration, Bob talks about his interest in drawing, so there are a couple sketch-driven animated sequences. Then the animation vanishes. Then there's a painfully cliched drug trip that includes a little animation. Then the animation vanishes. A couple more things are sketched at the end, but when you look at “How To Change The World” as a whole, other than the minor aesthetic variation, nothing has been gained thanks to the animation and no assertion has even been made linking the animation to Rob Hunter's view of the world. It's just a thing they did. 

Somehow that's still less annoying than the commentary on manufacturing image that never materializes into a point. The Greenpeace had an on-board documentarian, because they correctly realized the way a single image can become a point of mobilization for a whole movement. The documentary's best scenes focus on the build-up to certain key Greenpeace moments — The harpoon shot from the Russian whaling vessel, the two activists blocking a boat on the ice of Newfoundland. But a couple comments about the drama we weren't seeing behind the scenes in the 1970s are followed by pull-backs to reveal Rothwell's “How To Save The World” crew. But to what end? Rothwell's objective in making this documentary is never a subject of discussion, nor is there any intimation of a story-behind-the-story in the making of this documentary. Because of how effectively meta the documentary-within-the-documentary from the '70s is, the lack of meta value in the present makes those pullbacks another distraction.

And “messenging” really is one of the most interesting aspects of both the popularity of Greenpeace in its moment, but also in nearly every advocacy movement subsequently. The only one of the “rules” that makes real sense is “Plant a mind bomb,” which was just an excuse to talk about Bob Hunter's concept of the “mind bomb” and how that relates to today's viral communication culture. It's a point Rothwell surely could have pushed further.

There are so many levels on which “How To Save The World” works. The Watson/Moore binary is interesting and forces several changes of identification. Bob Hunter feels like a developed personality, despite his absence. Several supporting characters — whale-obsessed Paul Spong, synthesizer pioneer Will Jackson and David “Walrus” Garrick in particular — are good for laughs and unexpected insight. And the period footage — from harrowing whale slaughter to the aftermath of the Aleutian nuclear test — is an amazing resource. Seeing details that I hadn't known from the birth of Greenpeace made me more interested in how it became the foundation we see today.

A 95-minute documentary that put those things at the forefront and that didn't layer on structuring device after structuring device, that didn't throw out stylistic ideals without payoff, that didn't tease intellectually provocative perspectives without following through would have earned more of an endorsement. 

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”