Canary (2023) - CineDump

CANARY (2023)

September 5, 2023

“Things are only impossible until they become possible. That’s the story of human beings, but you don’t know until you try.” And try he has. Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest’s new documentary, Canary, tells the fascinating story of one Dr. Lonnie Thompson, glaciologist and National Medal of Science winner. From humble beginnings in West Virginia coal country to arriving at the Ohio State University and on to the peaks of Indonesia, China, and especially Peru, we follow Lonnie as he becomes a scientific pioneer. Our current understanding of climate change is largely due to his decades-long dedication to collecting ice core samples from some of the most remote places on the planet.

Our filmmakers have two topics that they skillfully weave together. There’s a mostly linear narrative component that tracks Lonnie’s career from a budding young scientist in the 1970s to a present-day revered expert. O’Malley and Rivest paint a complete portrait of Lonnie, ensuring that his essential humanity colors how we experience the work. We feel his disappointment when the scientific establishment initially rejects him, we cheer his resolve as he figures out how to get tons of specialized equipment to the tops of mountains, and we worry when he discovers that he needs a heart transplant. Along the way, we meet his proud mother, his dedicated wife (a respected scientist in her own right), his loving daughter, and several peers and colleagues.

The other component is Lonnie’s actual work and explaining its importance. We are shown how information is gleaned from ice core samples, we are shown pictures that document the rapid decline of massive glaciers over time, and it is explained why Lonnie’s work was so groundbreaking. This aspect is designed to be understood by laypeople and is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Though what is discussed is certainly alarming, this is no alarmist screed. O’Malley and Rivest maintain an assured and composed tone. This approach works hand in hand with Lonnie’s personal story to make scientific conclusions more digestible.

Canary is obviously concerned with coal. From Lonnie’s hardscrabble upbringing in coal-dependent Appalachia to a discussion of how his heart pump was dependent on coal-produced electricity, the fuel source is ever lurking in the foreground of the film. In fact, I’d say one of the film’s strongest sequences is when Lonnie’s heart transplant situation is used to mirror our society’s seemingly inextricable relationship with coal. The intersection of scientific fact, employment concerns, and wealth is brought to bear on the realities of our current situation. The film even derives its name from the method that coal miners would use to detect the air quality of mines with the metaphor cleverly extended to Lonnie’s life’s work. Other themes include conversations balancing the worth of knowledge vs. human lives and the sense of pure adventure that drives Lonnie and his associates.

Utilizing stunning aerial photography of forbidding and beautiful locations, archival footage, vintage photos, interviews, and voiceovers, editors Lee Lustig and J. Santos keep the proceedings moving. Of course, cinematographer Devin Whetstone also contributes to this department. The result is a picture that feels confident in its style and is always interesting to watch. I wouldn’t say this is a flashy film by any means, but it definitely has nice production values.

Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest endeavor to illuminate the fascinating life of Dr. Lonnie Thompson and inform about the topic of climate change with Canary. It’s a fairly straightforward but effortlessly smart documentary that nevertheless doesn’t talk down to the audience. It has a runtime of 104 minutes and will have a limited opening in LA, New York, and Lonnie and I’s adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio on September 15th. A collection of one-night engagements in various cities will occur on September 20th.  One point the film hammers home is that despite Lonnie’s herculean efforts, the bleak trajectory of the climate disaster has not changed. Here’s to hoping the film does more than preach to the choir.

Michael Cavender