For those coming to Ondi Timoner’s “Cool It” with a considerable amount of skepticism, the first half-hour will do little to sway you as Timoner strains to make you like Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial advocate of alternative energy strategies nicknamed for the title of his most famous book as “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” After a montage gingerly demonstrates how his views on global warming have clashed with the majority of the world’s scientists, Lomborg is shown caring for his mother with Alzheimer’s, feeding schoolchildren in Nairobi and gazing longingly over riverbanks and outside train windows.
Occasionally someone like Stanford environmental studies professor Stephen Schneider comes on screen to wag his finger in disagreement, but when the realization sets in that Timoner is burnishing Lomborg’s image only for the Greenpeace refugee to give a point-by-point repudiation of “An Inconvenient Truth” using Al Gore’s favorite weapon, the slideshow, against him, there’s good reason to believe “Cool It” will become the histrionic piece of propaganda that it is intended to rail against.
Certainly, the film indulges in a bit of that, opening and closing with twee animated sequences of earth with a voiceover by children and follows a rigid formula of persuasion, but if “Cool It” is effective, it’s because of Timoner’s ability to parlay her insistence on keeping an open mind onto her audience. As it turns out, the same curiosity that led the director into the claustrophobic and dangerous worlds of Brian Jonestown Massacre’s lead singer Anton Newcombe in “Dig!” or internet entrpreneur Josh Harris in “We Live in Public” is a necessity when trying to offer up energy alternatives such as algae fuel, cloud brightening and wave energy and urban heat islands (sidewalks that cool the surface) that seem even further afield for the average citizen than the more widely accepted solutions of solar or wind energy.
Since Timoner’s interest has always been in people rather than ideology, “Cool It” doesn’t appear at first to play to her strengths with the film’s half-hearted introduction trying to tell Lomborg’s story, even when he, like any activist worth their salt, would rather discuss his cause. However, once Lomborg gets into his groove speaking about alternative energy solutions that are off the beaten path, “Cool It” takes on the passion that probably brought Timoner and Lomborg together in the first place and in fact becomes exciting when it demonstrates how some of the crazier technologies that are lesser known to the general public can work towards cooling the planet. It also helps that Timoner expresses her humanistic touch in small ways with her subjects, depicting the many scientists and experts on hand not as a parade of static talking heads, but in their natural environments, whether it’s standing on a grassy knoll or sitting in a laboratories with a plate full of beakers of green algae fuel jiggling in the background.
Knowing Lomborg is already such a polarizing figure in climate change circles, Timoner dedicates ample time to clarifying his positions, immediately disavowing the notion that he doesn’t believe in global warming and gives Lomborg ample time with a chalkboard to explain his longtime poo-pooing of carbon emissions, which like many of his other arguments is based in the idea that it’s simply not as important in the bigger scheme of things as other pressing needs around the world like education, health care and clean water. Other scholars such as Paul Reiter, professor of medical entomology at Pasteur Insitute, appear on camera to bring up sentiments that won’t be popular amongst most environmentalists, with Reiter saying, “Science has been hijacked by alarmists” and Timoner, shortly thereafter, showing celebrities like David Duchovny and Lance Bass looking slightly foolish as they espouse the importance of using low-wattage light bulbs and driving hybrids when “Cool It”‘s commentators dismiss these actions as drops in the bucket.
Yet one of the film’s most keen observations is also its most subtle, depicting a room packed with photographers and reporters when Al Gore came to testify in front of Congress on climate change. Lomborg, who was there to meet the former vice president, uses the moment as the joke that opens his lecture, saying that he can tell the exact moment when Gore realized he was shaking hands with the enemy. But it is when you see Lomborg sitting in front of a congressional panel with an empty room behind him that you understand why “Cool It” is an important addition to the debate because even though many disagree with his views, more people should be there to listen.
“Cool It” is now open in limited release.