Saturday, August 11, 2007

24 hours to save the planet

Jack Bauer's new target is global warming. Leonardo DiCaprio's latest film is eco-conscious. David Smith reports on the greening of Hollywood

Sunday August 12, 2007
The Observer

Can Jack Bauer save the world? News that television's secret agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland in the addictive thriller 24, is to take the war against global warming into millions of homes has been welcomed by environmental campaigners as a seminal moment in the 'greening' of Hollywood.

Time, or the lack of it, is a recurring motif in the industry's take on climate change. The blockbuster that showed New York engulfed by a new ice age was called The Day After Tomorrow. This week Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably the most environmentally active star, releases an alarming documentary he has produced and narrated entitled The 11th Hour. But it is 24 that has the most mainstream appeal and which, with its presentation in 'real-time' corresponding minute by minute to the life of Bauer as he strives to beat the clock and avert disaster, provides an opportune metaphor for the race to salvage the planet.

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Climate change awareness is the height of Hollywood fashion, earning comparison with past causes that saw stars rally in support of the Second World War, protest against the Vietnam War and draw attention to the plight of HIV/Aids sufferers. Driving a hybrid Toyota Prius is now so de rigueur that it was recently reported Hollywood has a nine-month waiting list for them. But the town is hiding an inconvenient truth: last year an academic study found that the film and television industry comes second only to oil refineries in fuelling the smog above the Hollywood hills.

It is embarrassments like this that the Fox studio says it is setting out to change. It has announced that 24 will aim to become the first 'carbon-neutral' TV programme. Environmentally friendly production measures will include using biodiesel for generators and vehicles, buying energy from wind, water and solar power sources, rewiring a production stage to use electricity instead of diesel-generated power and phasing in hybrid vehicles for cast and crew.

The campaign will be evident on screen too. Fox said that 24 would incorporate the issue of global warming and the importance of carbon emission reduction into storylines 'when appropriate'. The official 24 website includes a video appeal by Sutherland, who warns: 'Global warming is a crime for which we are all guilty,' and a list of tips for the public, including turning off lights, riding a bike and printing on both sides of the page.

The announcement was hailed as a breakthrough by Steve Howard, chief executive of the Climate Group, which promotes business and government leadership on climate change. He said: 'An Inconvenient Truth [the global warming documentary featuring Al Gore] was remarkably influential, and The 11th Hour is a well put together film, but both will reach a relatively small audience. If you have 24 dealing with the issue, not in a hairshirt way but in a Hollywood exciting way, it has to be a good thing. People can be overwhelmed by another newspaper headline saying, "Ice caps melting, polar bears dead," or "Another hurricane on the way", but when you watch a film and the star is driving a hybrid instead of a Humvee, that is less daunting.'

However, a didactic tone in 24 could cause uneasiness among some fans, according to Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety, the industry journal. '24 is very popular among conservatives, very popular among the Bush administration,' he said. 'It's not too much of a leap to say this might include people who don't think global warming exists.'

However, climate change sceptics are an endangered species in Hollywood. The queen of green is Laurie David, wife of comedian Larry and co-producer of An Inconvenient Truth, whose contacts book contains much of the A list. Fox's owner Rupert Murdoch, not usually regarded as a member of the liberal elite, is the latest recruit, announcing three months ago a commitment to 'changing the DNA of our business' to cut the impact of News Corp, Fox's parent company, on the environment.

Media power is matched by political power in the Golden State. As an actor and bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the first American civilian to own a gas-guzzling Humvee, but as a politician he has undergone a Damascene conversion. The state governor signed pioneering legislation to reduce California's carbon emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 and by 80 per cent by 2050, as well as initiatives to encourage solar power. It is not the Terminator star who is the lodestar for Hollywood activists like DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, however, according to Ted Johnson. 'Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the entertainment industry and is probably the number one convert in the state, but the man people really look to is Al Gore,' he said. 'He got there first and An Inconvenient Truth created a real buzz and inspired a lot of people, to the extent that Cameron Diaz now teaches it.'

Diaz was recently ranked second behind DiCaprio on a list of '15 green actors' compiled by Grist, the online environmental magazine, earning praise for driving a hybrid car and her involvement in Gore's Live Earth concerts. The chart also included Robert Redford, a veteran campaigner; Cate Blanchett, who has converted her home to solar power; George Clooney, who launched Oil Change, a campaign to wean America off oil; and Brad Pitt, who advocates eco-friendly buildings.

Dr Arlo Brady, a special adviser on green issues for the London-based celebrity PR agency Freud Communications, said: 'If you're a celeb or star and you want to pick up a subject that resonates with audiences, you're going to choose climate change. There are a number of climate change impostors and in some cases it's so obvious that it's laughable.'

But there are exceptions, he added. 'Leonardo DiCaprio connects with millions and millions of people every year, and his core audience are not necessarily the people who are engaged with the climate change debate. The fact that he is in The 11th Hour might persuade them to go along - they'll be emotionally bothered by it and they'll learn something. Celebs do have carbon-intensive lifestyles, but they have such an incredible power at their fingertips that, in my view, it would be irresponsible of them not to use it.'

The 11th Hour, released in the US on Friday, takes up themes from An Inconvenient Truth, with interviewees including physicist Stephen Hawking and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, interspersed with visions of volcanoes, mudslides and clubbed baby seals set against images of consumerism.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where DiCaprio sought to place himself in a Hollywood tradition of political activism: 'If you look back to the peace and the civil rights movements, there have been people in the industry that have been at the forefront of that.'

But during a press conference he faced the same charge that has been levelled at many actors: hypocrisy. Asked if he travelled on a fuel-hungry jet on his way to the French Riviera, he replied sarcastically: 'No, I took a train across the Atlantic.' He went on: 'We're all trying the best we can. Truly, we really are. Attacks on Al Gore, for example, are misdirected. Don't shoot the messenger. If you're going to attack somebody on the way they conduct their life, let's talk about the big picture, let's see what big oil companies are doing.'

Unfortunately for DiCaprio, the big picture also includes film and television companies. It is a dirty business: giant sets are built and then often destroyed, cameras and lights consume vast amounts of energy, large trucks are used to transport sets and crew and thousands of script pages are printed off every day. In 2004 The Day After Tomorrow was the first carbon-neutral movie after Fox paid $200,000 (£105,000) for a reforestation project to offset some 10,000 tons of carbon emissions. Other studios such as Warner Brothers are following suit, encouraged by the Environmental Media Association, which awards a 'Green Seal' to productions that meet its list of eco-standards and offers one-on-one consultations 'to suggest and brainstorm ways to incorporate environmental topics into subtle storylines and character arcs'. Syriana and Evan Almighty were both carbon-neutral productions.

Now 24 is aiming to become the first TV drama to do the same, a critical step towards deflecting criticism by practising what it preaches. Jack Bauer alone might not save the world, but environmentalists hope he can help deliver public opinion. Howard of The Climate Group said: 'We need the right level of political leadership, business innovation and investment, and public engagement, so popular culture is hugely important.

'You might say we've had An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour and The Day After Tomorrow, so Hollywood has been there, done that. No, it hasn't. Pick any other issue and there have been a million movies made about it. This is the biggest issue of the 21st century and it needs to be done in a way that inspires and excites and get people talking.'

Storm Warnings

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

With Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal. Worst-case climate change scenario.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

With Al Gore. Documentary following the former vice-president's mission to raise awareness of global warming.

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

With Martin Sheen, Mel Gibson.

Why the environmentally friendly car was killed off by General Motors.

The 11th Hour (2007)

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking. Bleak picture for humanity unless it acts now.

Arctic Tale (2007)

With Queen Latifah. Struggle of a polar bear cub and a baby walrus.

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