I am not a movie reviewer (I think Machete might be the best movie I saw in 2010, but I was real tired at the time), but here goes.
The movie was, much like its subject, interesting as much for its flaws as its message.
The film combined footage from Suzuki’s “Legacy Lecture” tour stop in Vancouver with biographical vignettes, which blended archival photos and film with footage of Suzuki visiting those places most important in his 75-year life.
And it is interesting to see the things that influenced his development into the Icon we all recognize. He begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbour when he was 5, which he describes as the pivotal moment in his life, as it set the course of his 1942 internment, his 1946 relocation across the Rockies, and his growing up as an outsider in a small Ontario town, and the complex relationship with his home that he in part inherited from his father. He discusses his introduction to research science, benefiting from the “Sputnik Moment” recently referenced in Obama’s State of the Union address (and hilariously bungled in Sarah Palin’s rebuttal), and he eventual disillusionment with research while immersed in the counter-culture of late 1960 Vancouver. We see his introduction to broadcasting, and his discovery of the huge range his voice could have, and how he leveraged this into activism, most notably in the preservation of pristine watersheds in the Haida Gwaii.
It is an interesting journey, and he has had a remarkable life. But there is no attempt here to sugar coat his history, or his person. His dedication to research and inability to give his wife and children the attention they needed cost him a marriage. The film also didn’t shy away from showing the now silly-looking pot-philosophy trip he was groovin’ in the 60s. To a scientist, his arguments around the responsibility of research scientists in a world where all science shares ideas and one could not control how one’s research is used are intellectually weak. It also seems to be an argument that belies his current ideas about how we need, as a species, to learn. But few of us would like to be judged by the ideas we formulated in our 20s while under the influence of premium Mexican sensimilla.
Which brings me to one of the problems I have always had with Suzuki as a spokesperson for science. He too often gets his science mixed up with his spirituality. He does this here again with his blending of the real science of the Big Bang (which he irritatingly calls an “explosion”, when it is nothing of the sort) and the formation of matter with “love” as an attractive force on par with gravity. Philosophers can use science, and scientists can have philosophies, but muddying them up like that in the guise of science education does a disservice to both, and unfairly lumps too much pseudo-science in with true insight.
The same complaints cannot be used when he talks about sustainability, though. His message is not in the least bit muddied there. We are using resources faster then they can be replaced, and we are the last generation that will (for example) have a Bluefin Tuna Auction. Humans do not exist outside of, or apart from, the environment, we are immersed in it so intimately that the exhaust from our cars goes into our lungs and mixes with our cells. We become the exhaust from our cars, the neurotoxins in our pesticides, the plastic in our seas.
The filmmakers made some interesting choices. They didn’t interview anyone about Suzuki, other than Suzuki (with the sole exception of a 10-second sound bite from his current wife). Some of the people around him are completely absent, including his “best friend” (who is briefly mentioned but not seen), or his political allies and detractors. This sometimes gives it the vibe of a vanity project, and does little to dispel the common idea that Suzuki suffers from in inflated self-image, They also insisted on using a strange fast-zoom-in technique, presumably to create emphasis that may have been lacking from Suzuki’s relatively unexpressive visage during an important part of a discussion, or maybe it was to try to make him look like Batman. Regardless, it was distracting at first, irritating the 20th time.
Overall, the movie was effective. Suzuki is an interesting character, whose flaws as a person or as a scientist do not take away from the essential truth of his message: the planet has limited carrying capacity, and the way we measure value in our economy is not the way we measure value in our lives. It is this disconnect on the definition of “value” that is resulting in the destruction of the very biosphere that sustains us.