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Pandora’s Promise in Review

Opening Reviews? Mixed, with a tilt to the positive.

nytimesManohla Dargis in the New York Times grabbed a little harder than I did at the drubbing of Dr. Helen Calidicott got in the picture and said it showed the movie’s one-sided view of nuclear energy.

This comic divide — the strident old lady environmentalist with the apparent bad dye job (Ms. Caldicott) versus a Yoda of the modern environmental movement (Mr. Brand) — makes for quite a setup. Yet such deck-stacking in movies can also be a viewer turnoff, no matter how seemingly worthy the cause. And “Pandora’s Promise” is as stacked as advocate movies get.

The descriptions of Caldicott and Brand are pretty terrible - remind me not to get on Dargis’ bad side. I used to work in the independent film business in New York (briefly, ineffectually) and a positive review from the Times was very important to launch an independent picture. One of the companies I worked for went pear shaped after a poor NYT review.That’s not as true now as it was when Vincent Canby ruled the NYT reviewing roost in the 70s and 80s Happily, the rise of specialized theater chains such as Landmark allow worthy films such as Pandora’s Promise to open in more than one city at a time, just like Man of Steel – well, minus 12,000 screens, but still, plenty for an adequate launch.

In many of these cities, the documentary picked up exceptionally good reviews.

wapoFor example, Michael O’Sullivan at the Washington Post understands a better than Dargis that Pandora’s Promise is more an essay than a news account.

Although the documentary ultimately argues in favor of nuclear power, an energy source that’s anathema to many tree huggers, it does so in a way that’s less strenuous than strenuously ambivalent. In the end, its somewhat equivocal message — that nuclear power might just be the lesser of several evils — is more convincing than you’d think.

This is a good point to bring out. The film does not downplay issues environmentalists – including those in the movie - have had with nuclear energy. If O’Sullivan errs a bit in considering energy choices greater or lesser evils, he sees that there is an argument to made for nuclear energy. Going from “anathema” to “ambivalent” is not nothing.

A little more:

chireadJ.R. Jones in The Chicago Reader:

The pro-nuclear left grabs the bullhorn in this lively advocacy documentary, which argues that nuclear power is much less damaging to the environment than people think and, given the exponential rise in energy demand, the only credible alternative to fossil fuels.

minnstarColin Calvert in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

While the film may not soothe every skeptic’s misgivings, it argues persuasively that nuke-produced electricity can be a major contributor to the needs of an energy-hungry world. Like many advocacy documentaries, it offers a one-sided argument. This time, however, it’s advanced by people who spent much of their lives on the opposite side.

There’s plenty more reviews, but the ability to quote them thins out behind pay walls – I’m sure Stone and his distributor will find them all the positive ones for the ads – but generally, the reviews are well-considered and judicious. Those that don’t like the film generally call it one-sided, following Dargis, but a lot get past simple minded views of journalistic balance to see the movie as it is, a film essay on nuclear energy.

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Manola Dargis is a fine reviewer, but I cannot help but think that the Times in general cannot quite figure this movie out. In an odd feature article entitled Rebel Filmmaker Tilts Conservative, writer Tom Roston works with the notion that conservative documentarians have trouble getting their wares into festivals such as Sundance, yet Stone had little problem with Pandora’s Promise.

But the Sundance director, John Cooper, said, “We like films that create dialogue.” Asked whether Mr. Stone’s history — he has had three previous films at Sundance — was a factor, Mr. Cooper replied, “The credibility of a filmmaker does matter to us.”

So, clearly, Stone’s reputation preceded him – as it should – what is the point of a reputation, after all? But more troubling is the effort in the article to pin down the ideology of the film because it is about nuclear energy. Although the focus is on environmentalists, several of them are not American, and none of their ideological affiliations are discussed. Assuming they’re all liberal or that Stone is less liberal because he supports nuclear energy is just – insulting. Access to electricity is pretty close to being a human right – no affiliation necessary.

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