Review: ‘Before the Flood,’ Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Directed By Fisher Stevens

Leonardo DiCaprio has his name tied to a lot of things – his relationship with Martin Scorsese, his long quest for that Best Actor Oscar win, and his affection for 20something supermodels – and while you can mock some of that stuff, you can’t really poke fun at his concern regarding the environment. The proof of DiCaprio’s commitment is in Before the Flood, the documentary he produced and starred in that is directed by Fisher Stevens, noted environmental activist (and, of course onetime Hackers villain).

This is well-researched, clearly articulated, and quite frankly terrifying stuff, the kind of documentary that makes you want to slap people in the face with your knowledge. “Give a shit about the world around you!” you’ll want to scream after watching Before the Flood. Your rage is DiCaprio’s and Stevens’s accomplishment.  

Filmed over the span of a couple years, Before the Flood focuses on DiCaprio’s journey as a public environmentalist, beginning with him being named a UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change and tracing some of his stops around the world – including China, India, and the Arctic Circle, meeting with people like Elon Musk and President Barack Obama – as he attempts to learn more about the problems facing climate change and figure out ways to make things better. One of the best things Leo does is admit exactly how much he doesn’t know, allowing other knowledgeable people – noted scientists, government officials, and activists – to share their opinions on what we need to do.

And, Before the Flood makes clear, we need to do a whole hell of a lot better. The documentary doesn’t pull any punches, which isn’t really a surprise from Stevens (if you’ve seen his other documentaries, like The Cove, you’ll never forget it), but it is refreshing how thoroughly Before the Flood rejects the guise of “objectivity.” The reality is there shouldn’t be two sides to the climate change debate, and there shouldn’t be a debate, because this is really happening. We have caused this. And the question shouldn’t be, “Have we or haven’t we?” but “How do we fix this, since we have definitively fucked things up?” That’s the question DiCaprio explores, and what he finds is alternately fascinating and shocking.

Before the Flood is full of infuriating stuff, from the superficial (clips of Fox News personalities mocking DiCaprio, saying it’s a “global warming hoax” and that “the crisis doesn’t exist”) to the thoroughly real. Images of synthetic crude oil facilities, where forests are decimated, steam is pumped into the ground, and oil is taken out of the sand, totally ruining the environment (“It kind of looks like Mordor,” Leo says). Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, where centuries worth of ice has melted into an ice-cream-like texture. Miami, where daytime flooding, caused by rising sea levels, which cripples the city is being attacked with a $400 million pump project that will only fix the problem for a few years. India, where Dr. Sunita Narain puts Leo in his place when he tries to talk about the responsibility of India’s citizens to use more environmentally friendly energy sources. How she shakes her head and notes to Leo that Americans use more fossil fuels than practically every other country, and that it’s hypocritical to expect other countries to do more when Americans are doing less, is an excellent teachable moment both for him and for us.

Amid all this, what can we do? Before the Flood is clear in its disdain for politicians who refuse to do anything about global warming, and names them: Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, talking head Glenn Beck, the Koch brothers, Sen. James Inhofe, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Mitch McConnell, are you sensing a theme here? When we have the power to vote these people out of office, why don’t we?

Also effective are its small-scale suggestions for how individuals can do better, like eating less red meat (70% of American agricultural land is used for cattle grazing, whereas only 1% is used for growing crops); supporting a carbon tax that would penalize institutions responsible for carbon emissions; and investing in products that are environmentally considerate, like Elon Musk’s Tesla and Solar City. That may not seem like a lot, but the reality is that people need to act for companies and governments to fall in line – and we’ve failed up until now.

It's not that Before the Flood is totally flawless. Clips of Leo during filming of The Revenant are a tacit advertisement for the film, and there is no mention of the current corruption scandal in which DiCaprio’s foundation is currently embroiled. An interview with President Obama is prestigious, but not particularly impactful. And yet there is so much information here, and it’s presented so baldly, that it’s impossible to be unaffected. Deny Before the Flood if you choose, but you’re on the wrong side of history.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Guttenbergs