One of this year's most anticipated environmental documentaries has just been released. While currently only playing in Los Angeles and New York, so far No Impact Man, the film about a man and his family taking "extreme" measures to reduce their environmental impact, is getting mostly positive reviews. The popular website rottentomatoes.com currently lists the movie as having an 82% rating, with 14 out of 17 reviewers giving it positive reviews:
Here's a sampling of what some early reviewers have said about No Impact Man:
One of my personal favorite reviewers, Dana Stevens of Slate, humorously expressed mixed feelings:
Colin Beavan's self-important solemnity, and the passive-aggressive pleasure he seems to take in depriving others of their pleasure, makes reducing your environmental footprint look so unappealing that you want to drive straight to McDonald's in a Humvee. And yet the film's refusal to either idealize or ridicule its subject becomes, in the end, the virtue that makes it stick with you...But it's hard not to admire their shared commitment to a project that, in some attenuated form, many of us would like to emulate in our own lives. Bring on the cloth diapers and compost boxes, but you'll have to pry the toilet paper out of my cold, dead hands.
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of the website Spirituality and Practice were able to visualize themselves to a greater extent in the scenario that the characters faced:
Part of the pleasure in watching this documentary comes from trying to discern how we would handle the challenges and frustrations of such a daunting lifestyle change. It is far easier to side with Michele who is willing to bend the rules rather than follow her husband's strict regimen. The filmmakers enable us to see and appreciate the compromise and dialogue which must take place in a marriage when one person is ten miles down the road and the other is trying desperately to keep up. Husband and wife are rarely in the same place at the same time.
Aaron Hillis of The Village Voice has given one of the least favorable reviews, making some weird complaint that Beavan's one-year experiment is a gimmick, as if Beavan is going to wake up the next day and go eat at McDonalds and shop at Walmart saying, "Thank God that's over." (Perhaps Hillis is just jealous for some reason, or want's to be one the first to dislike something most other people will probably like?):
We could all do better, definitely (be sure to sneak in your reusable bottles instead of buying from the concession stand!), but how much can we possibly glean from a guy whose idealism can be measured with a calendar?
Nicolas Rapold of Time Out New York suggests that the film has a fun vibe but has a weak conclusion:
No Impact Man eventually runs out of gas—or rather, pedal-power—as the filmmakers grope for how to cap the Beavans’ story. If you caught Colin on his extensive media rounds at the time, you might already know the climax. At least the doc avoids harangues, even if it could use a bit more scientific background.
In what is likely to eventually be a tiresome chorus of "they took one for the team" type opinions, Betsy Sharker of The Los Angeles Times cleverly expresses her own:
In between the visits to organic farms, the disposable diaper debate, the trips to the farmers market and the games of charades that have replaced the TV as entertainment, the film ultimately is more practical than profound, a slightly smartened-up "Dummy's Guide to Green Living," which, as you learn, most of us probably know a good deal less about than we imagine.
It's also a voyeuristic way to try some of the more demanding changes on for size without any of the pain. Beavan and Conlin take care of that for us.
David Edelstein of New York Magazine seems more optimistic in his thinking:
No Impact Man—film and book—could well end up an instruction manual.
At the Daily Green, four people provided excellent reviews of the film, but these passages from Brian Clark Howard and Dan Shapley were the most interesting for me:
[Howard]: At points in the film I wanted to get more information about the changes the Beavan clan was making, and about how big changes do really add up. I wanted to see infographics and statistics flash across the screen. But by the end of the film I changed my mind. I decided that the minimalist, low-fi camera work and lack of fancy splash screens and graphics played to the movie's subject perfectly. Although this is a savvy, successful Manhattan couple, they are trying to find more simplicity in their lives, more meaning. There have been plenty of opportunities for people to get the facts on the environment, but too few are reacting with their hearts.
[Shapley]: The other thing I loved about this movie was a point it didn't make explicitly. The couple's young daughter, Isabella, appears to be totally unaffected by the experiment. At the beginning of the movie, she's barely verbal, and by the end, she's beginning to form sentences. She seems not to suffer from reusable cloth diapers, six months without electricity or locally derived homemade food. She's just a kid, who, if anything, takes joy in washing the family's clothes with their feet in the bathtub and spending more summer evenings with mom and dad outside in the park. Lifestyle changes for adults are hard, the movie shows. For kids, they aren't changes at all. That gives me more hope than anything else that we can, as a society, live more sustainably without being any less happy.
But until Roger Ebert publishes his review, the one that's sure to be the most referenced will be from The New York Times' always intellectual A.O. Scott. In this perplexing and interesting review, he is quite harsh toward environmentalists and toward Beavan. He even goes out of his way to make Beavan seem like an abusive husband (maybe he is-- I haven't seen the movie). I think he sensed that much of his hatred for the movie as a publicity stunt would come off negatively with the environmental crowd, and so he tossed out a small olive branch at the end to protect his hide:
Taken as a polemical documentary championing environmentally conscious action, “No Impact Man,” directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, is of little interest and less utility. It provides no new scientific insights or political arguments, and celebrates various behavioral changes without assessing their value or importance. Mr. Beavan’s evangelical, self-congratulatory demeanor has the effect, especially early in the film, of playing to the unfortunate perception that what drives many environmentalists is, above all, the need to feel superior to their neighbors and fellow citizens...
Not everyone will want to come along. And I remain unconvinced that the cause of planetary rescue will be advanced very far by what is, in the end, an elaborate stunt. But as a professional writer, a New York husband and a man with a compost bin, an organic-produce fetish and a guilty conscience, I can’t, in the end (all appearances to the contrary), judge Mr. Beavan or this film too severely. Making an impact is easy. Making a difference is hard.
So, what do you think? Are you going to see No Impact Man? If you've not yet seen the preview for the movie, then you can watch it below.