'Crude Impact' could use a coat of sobriety

November 02, 2007|By Tasha Robinson, Special to the Tribune

The filmmakers behind "Crude Impact" certainly know how to make a crude impact themselves; first-time writer-director James Jandak Wood opens with author Matthew Simmons proclaiming "If peak oil happens, and people don't understand what's going on, it could very easily be a global tipping point. It is basically every bit as serious as global thermonuclear war." It's an arresting beginning, but also a risky one, guaranteed to make viewers brace for scare-mongering, hyperbole and sweeping generalizations.

"Crude Impact" does periodically threaten to take those low roads. Much like the similar documentary "The 11th Hour" earlier this year, it's a collection of talking-head interviews enlivened by stock footage and quick cutting meant to keep viewers receptively dazed and glued to the screen in spite of the frightening message about environmental decay. But where "11th Hour" shallowly addressed a wide variety of topics, "Crude Impact" goes deep and expansive on the political, environmental, and cultural costs of American dependence on oil. Arguing that we've reached the point of "peak oil," where the amount of petroleum that can be drawn from the Earth will inevitably start to decline, a handful of authors and activists illustrate the negative impact American oil drilling has had domestically and overseas. As oil becomes harder to find, they explain, the oil companies will become even more ruthless and profit-driven, and their track records of economic and political exploitation offer no hope of moral restraint.

Some of "Crude Impact's" message comes via the inevitable animated charts and graphs, plus broad, simple statements like Simmons', and some of it feels like pandering, with its cutesy use of vintage cartoons and jokey visual juxtapositions. But the message is earnest and sincere, and Wood argues it well, with chilling case studies of Texaco's wholesale pollution in Ecuador and Shell's fatal interference with politics and protests in the Niger Delta. Using an unsettling clip of an indulgent TV "news" piece about Ronald McDonald that could double as a corporate commercial, he illustrates how news and entertainment have merged, and shows how viewers need to be involved in their world if they want real information about the damage being done in their name and how to fight back. Accessible, focused documentaries like "Crude Impact" -- available on DVD and ready for the classroom -- are a decent start.

Editor's note: The theatrical version of "Crude Impact," which has a running time of 1:38, was not made available by press time. This review is of the slightly shorter DVD version.

'Crude Impact' ** 1/2

Written and directed by James Jandak Wood; photographed by Sharon Anderson; edited by Wood, Anderson, and Pamela Spitzer; music by John DeBorde; produced by Wood, Jennifer Jandak Wood and Joanne Shen. A Vista Clara release; plays Fri.-Sun. at Facets Cinematheque. Running time: 1:09.

No MPAA rating.

**** EXCELLENT

*** GOOD

** FAIR

* POOR