Mark Reviews Movies - "Canary"
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 14, 2023
Lonnie Thompson, a scientist who has spent four decades studying glaciers and climatology, wasn't the first to discover that our planet's climate has been changing for the worse since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, meaning humankind is solely to blame for the catastrophic conditions through which we're living and, apparently, will continue to exist. He is, perhaps, one of the field's most dedicated researchers, and Canary tells the story of a life devoted to a career that almost made a difference. The fact that Thompson, now in his 70s and still scaling mountains to help people see what's right in front of them, still believes he can make a difference is inspiring enough to make one think he actually might.
This documentary, directed by Danny O'Malley and Alex Rivest, is a mostly biographical affair. It explains Thompson's origins, his move into glaciology, and those 40-or-so years of traveling around the world, climbing tall peaks, and figuring out ways to do ice studies in places where most of the scientific community thought such research was impossible and unnecessary. In between the lines, though, is the story of how this planet has changed during the course of Thompson's career, as well as how his near-sighted goals and stubbornness reflect humanity's inability and/or unwillingness to accept the truth of man-made climate change. It's in our nature, unfortunately.
The film becomes a tricky balancing act, in that it's simultaneously a straightforward biography and piece of considered advocacy. O'Malley and Rivest, himself a scientist (although not in Thompson's field), have a point to make, just as their subject has come to learn that directly speaking out about what he has discovered and witnessed over the course of his professional life might be the last important thing he does with his career. The important thing, though, is that, in basing both the narrative and the advocacy in hard science and the process of study, the filmmakers intrinsically come at their arguments with facts, research, and data to back up the message they're conveying.
It comes, in part, from Thompson's work, of course. The man grew up in a coal mining town in West Virginia, where his young adult life basically had two options—and only a pair of them—in front of him. He could either mine coal or go to college. With an interest in the geology of coal for obvious reasons, he chose the latter, eventually earning his degree from a university, as well as post-graduate and doctoral degrees after that.
In the 1970s, the study of Antarctica and polar glaciers, drilling into the ice to uncover a recorded timeline of climate changes and events going back as far as the ice was thick, was becoming the big trend. Thompson wanted in on that research, but as with every professional field and endeavor apparently, a solid clique of scientists had formed. Thompson wasn't part of the in-group, so he had to make his own way, while also marrying and starting a family with his wife Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a fellow scientist who still works with her husband to this day (It's difficult to call this film a romance in any traditional sense of the word, but there is something deeply romantic about how intertwined the couple's lives are).
The filmmakers use a lot of archival footage and photographs to give a sense of how difficult and treacherous Thompson's work would become, while also providing contemporary footage of the scientist, still climbing those mountains decades later and seeing larger lakes where ice used to be. The key to Thompson's research would become the Quelccaya in Peru—a tropical ice cap in a remote part of the world, inaccessible by any means other than on foot, and dismissed by Thompson's glaciologist peers as irrelevant to any kind of meaningful research into the history of the planet's climate.
Thompson proved the doubters wrong in multiple ways, obviously. Mainly, Quelccaya would show in harsh and unmistakable ways that glaciers and ice caps were and are melting at a rapid rate—observable by the naked eye in just a matter of a year and, based on the ice core samples Thompson and his team worked hard to obtain, unique in the history of this region.
We know all of this, or at least, one should know all of this by now. What, then, is the point of going over it all again? For one thing, O'Malley and Rivest have Thompson's inspiring story as the entryway to this information, and it's fascinating on its own. They also, though, have a perspective of recent history, partially spurred on by Thompson's research, to dissect.
One will recall that in the early part of the new millennium, the topic of climate change and how to stop it seemed an issue for all of humanity to rally around, as politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States made public acknowledgments of it and statements in support of finding way to halt it. Within just a few years, some of those same politicians changed their tune entirely, influenced by various corporate interests and manipulated public sentiment. We watch that unfold, as did Thompson at the time, in shock.
Now, we're here, with denial of climate change becoming one side of a false "scientific controversy," and there's a sad, understandable irony in Thompson approaching a health crisis with the exact kind of denial shown by those who reject or attack his research. Canary, then, doesn't just become a warning about the state of this planet, presented with irrefutable on-the-ground and under-the-ice evidence. It becomes a cautionary tale about how easy and comforting denial can be, as well as a reminder that hard truths faced head on can offer unexpected rewards. These are lessons we desperately needed decades ago, but right now will have to do.