Producer: Adam Paul Smith   Directors: Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest   Screenplay: Danny O’Malley   Cast: Lonnie Thompson, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, J. Madeleine Nash, Regina Thompson, Frances Thompson, Michael Mann, Justin Gillis and Keith Mountain  Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Grade: B

At once a biography of a groundbreaking scientist and a plea for urgent action on climate change, this documentary succeeds on both counts.

The film by Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest is a portrait of Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist and paleoclimatologist whose incredible work extracting ice samples from remote glaciers and ice caps provided some early data demonstrating the effect of global warming on the planet, and the role of human activity, particularly the dependence on fossil fuels, in the process.  His findings helped lead to a general consensus on the subject, which was then countered by a campaign, largely funded by the energy industry, to undermine it and hinder progress in addressing the problem.  Thompson’s successful scientific efforts have, in his own view, failed to lead to the socio-political changes that he deems essential to the survival of the planet, and those that inhabit it.

The canary of the title is, of course, a reference to the bird that served in coal mines to signal when the air was growing dangerous.  It’s an apt metaphor for Thompson, who was born in America’s coal country—the little town of Gassaway in West Virginia—and who, if not for the efforts of his widowed mother Frances (an energetic woman seen in archival footage talking about her son), might have wound up in the mines himself.  She saw to it that he had the opportunity to attend college instead, and he eventually earned a PhD in Geology at Ohio State.

Stymied in hopes of joining expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctic because of their popularity with his colleagues, he fastened on the idea of investigating tropical or sub-tropical ice-caps in places that seemed to most completely inaccessible.  Despite the doubts of eminent reviewers, he put together a proposal to lead a team, including his wife Ellen, to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in the Andes of Peru—an extraordinary undertaking that involved transporting equipment, including a solar-powered drill, overland to the summit to obtain ice cores that would reveal more than a thousand years of geological and climate data.  The result—along with his own observations over time—brought revelatory data about glacier retreat and its potentially disastrous effect.  The result brought him widespread recognition, as well as offers to replicate his work at locations in Indonesia, China and elsewhere.

The film uses interviews with Thompson and his wife and daughter Regina, as well as experts in the field and science writers like J. Madeleine Nash, to document how he employed his findings to help marshal evidence demonstrating the effects of climate change and the need to develop policies to reverse it.  At first political leaders seemed persuaded and ready to act; but concerted efforts on the part of climate change deniers, or doubters, led to back-peddling, procrastination and stasis. 

This scenario is intertwined with the story Thompson’s personal medical issues.  He was diagnosed with congenital heart disease, and advised that a transplant was the only course of treatment.  Resisting it, he tried to soldier on with willpower alone, only to find it impossible and eventually having the operation.  (His resistance to accepting the inevitable, of course, presents in microcosm the refusal of those who accept the fact of climate change.)  Now in his mid-seventies, he continues his work as both explorer and activist, though his hope of altering the minds of those who have become deniers on a matter he considers one of life or death for humanity—and other species—has faded.  The film concludes with a plea for support from viewers to the effort to confront the crisis of climate change.

As a work of environmental activism, “Canary” is sober and somewhat slow-moving but insistent, and in Thompson it has a protagonist it’s impossible not to like and root for–even if comparisons some have made of the the methodical, soft-spoken man to Indiana Jones might strike one as a bit of a stretch. It’s been well put together by directors O’Malley and Rivest, with a script by O’Malley that presents the expository material nicely, as well as editors Lee Lustig and J. Santos, who have melded the archival material and cinematographer Devin Whetstone’s new footage, including the interview segments, into a smooth, accessible whole.   An unobtrusive score by Paul Doucette and Jeff Russo completes the package.

Whether the film alters any minds or not, it will certainly increase any viewer’s admiration for a man who has given all his energy to increasing scientific knowledge and trying to persuade us all to act on what his extraordinary work has revealed about the dangers we’ve been complicit in creating.