Barry Pepper, who unfortunately pronounces the word ‘nuclear’ the same way George W. Bush does, narrates How to Change the World, this history of the founding of Greenpeace. It’s heavy on the organisation’s well-intentioned hippie beginnings and the perhaps inevitable, destructive in-fighting that surfaced after little more than a decade, but very light on the big questions — namely why the planet is more imperilled today than it has ever been, and what could be done to revive the spirit that was apparently so powerful and abundant when this gang of unruly baby boomers decided to do something about the mortal danger they saw on the horizon.
Greenpeace was established in Vancouver, Canada in the early 1970s; the horror that was Vietnam was ending, but Kent State and Watergate were just around the corner. As the organisation’s name suggests, it was seen as a marriage of the nascent ecological movement and the massive anti-war sentiment at the time. Depp’s voiceover is drawn from diaries and other writings by one of Greenpeace’s founders, Bob Hunter, who it appears may not have been the most reliable of narrators, and also had a penchant for flowery, pseudo-poetic language.
Much of the first hour of the film is a thriller, tracking the group’s first mission: stopping a Russian whaling fleet off the coast of California. The film is overly concerned just as much with its own sense of style as it is with conveying the life-threatening situation in which the crew of the first Greenpeace boat found themselves.
A few of the ageing hippies interviewed are tremendously entertaining, but recounting the history of so broad an international organisation largely through this major story is odd. Nuclear weapons and the Cold War are discussed without any recourse to authoritative documents, and newspaper clippings are given fancy visual treatment but otherwise tossed aside. Most bizarrely, as the film progresses it becomes only more interested in itself: there are a few ‘meta’ behind-the-camera shots at the end that serve no purpose except to say “Look at us, we’re making a movie!”
There’s some talk of the technological limitations of early computers and telecommunications, but the phenomenal spread of Greenpeace across the world is presented as something wildly out-of-control — or at least out of control of the founders, who may have been too stoned to notice that other people were borrowing their logo (and ideals). Bickering and severe disagreements threaten to dissolve the organisation’s first chapter, but the founders wrest intellectual control of the brand with help from the European Greenpeace movement, which had smartly conglomerated while the Americans and Canadians argued among themselves. Aside from this, the larger ecological movement barely registers.
Aotearoa is mentioned only once, and not even in relation to the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.1 There are a few mildly shocking revelations at film’s end, but, generally speaking, less of a focus on the psychedelic stylings of a few outspoken flower children and more of a reliance on facts, causes and solutions would have made How to Change the World worthy of discussing. This is, surprisingly, the first documentary in a long while about the destruction of the earth that’s content not to mimic an activist rally.