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Positive Review in “Canary Review” by John DeSando.

Arts + Life


WCBE 90.5FM | By John DeSando

Published September 16, 2023 at 12:15 PM EDT

Canary may not be the most visually arresting documentary about a scientist achieving the heights in his field, but it may be the most emotionally satisfying one you will ever see. Flooded as we are with fictional super heroes, along comes a real Superman, Dr. Lonnie Thompson, super paleoclimatologist, who made discoveries by overcoming impossible odds in search of millennia-old ice samples that tell the history and future of civilization through their simple time lines.

This accessible and powerful film itself tells two tales: one about an adventurer who defies foes to reach the highest peaks in the world with ingenious machinery taking away scores of core samples to preserve their stories while their peaks and glaciers have begun rapid decline with the malign help of climate warming. With the aid of vintage photos, interviews, spectacular aerial filming, informed experts, and archival footage, the grandeur of the locations and the vulnerability of our planet are in prominent focus thanks in part to the serviceable cinematography of Devin Whetstone.

The second tale is of a humble West Virginia boy becoming an international Medal of Science winner working out of The Ohio State University running the Byrd Polar and Climate research Center, along with his accomplished colleague and wife, Dr. Ellen Moseley-Thompson. His defiance of climate deniers and scientists who denigrate his ambitions only to make the world and Al Gore aware of his discoveries is legendary, about as heroic as could be possible.

The cautionary tale is of his battle with death in the form of needing a heart transplant, that, like the climate-warming deniers, puts himself into denial but eventually and endurance for his future research. Characteristic of the documentary itself, he is low key yet even more persuasive because of his calm.

He faces his heart condition as he does the highest peaks by dashing his own doubts and summoning his greatest ambition for the planet regardless of his danger. That the success of his transplant relies heavily on the energy supplied by coal is one of the effective ironic touches of a documentary that does not promise answers. Lonnie’s counsel for us to be patient while we still rely on fossil fuels is an effective wisdom.

Another irony is that Thompson, despite his notable efforts, believes he accomplished so little that civilization is sliding back in its efforts against global warming. The honesty of the doc is startling, and the heroism of its protagonist heartening for those of us watching from below.

Canary is a film that begs for more. It would have been good to have fewer single shots of the protagonist, especially closeups, and taken us into the lab to see the careful analysis of core segments. In fact, fewer shots of stacking cores and more of the steps in the process would have given a dynamic presentation and cut down the repetitions. Anyhow, editors Lee Lustig and J. Santos succeeded in blending disparate elements into memorable images.

Canary, as the coal-mine metaphor suggests, will get your attention as you see the bird fail the oxygen test—You will admire an authentic American hero and inch toward a respect for climate change affecting everything that lives. Hooray for Lonnie Thompson, a true American hero, not just because of his National Medal of Science award, but because he cared enough for all of us.

“What do you not see? Why the disbelief?”


Director: Danny O’Maley (Chef’s Table), Alex Rivest

Cast: Lonnie Thompson, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, et al.

Run Time: 1h 44m

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at