Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated," Kevin Tillman wrote in an essay on the legacy of his slain brother Pat, the former NFL player who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
It could be the elegy of our age and certainly an introductory quote for two new documentaries dealing with dire problems we face. "No End in Sight" and "The 11th Hour" have a lot of things in common, but most generally, they offer a lot of disheartening news about the state of the world.
Though the films lack the bold nerve exhibited by Kevin Tillman and only a handful of his fellow citizens, they too question our government and society. Yet both -- however well-made and compelling also leave some questions hanging, being either unable or unwilling to go far enough to answer them.
"No End in Sight," written, produced and directed by a wealthy man named Charles Ferguson, hints at a question recently raised by Bill Maher during the Labor Day weekend episode of his "Real Time" show: How could people smart enough to become president, vice president, secretary of defense and secretary of state make the bone-headed mistakes made by our president and his cabinet during the lead-up to attack and ongoing occupation of Iraq?
The film provides a breathtaking rundown of these numerous devastating decisions, from the cobbling of an occupational authority a few months before the invasion to the disbanding of the Iraqi army. But it never concludes how and why these mistakes were made. Most of this information comes from the men and women who worked in Iraq at the time.
"The 11th Hour," written, produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, is about a war going on at home between those alarmed about global warming and the destruction of the environment and those who don't feel like such concerns are worth losing any billions over.
The movie plays off an analogy that has long been popular in teaching our role in the planet's history. If the world is a day, it explains, then we arrived something like one minute to midnight, with all of our written history produced during the last few seconds. This time the analogy is used to show how destructive we've become, setting off an extinction crisis that could end up to include us.
Both movies are fascinating in their content and implications. Not only do we get to participate in cultural folly, but we also get to watch ourselves doing it in real time. "No End" is a painstaking account of how we were led straight into an unnecessary war that has been conducted with what seems like purposeful neglect. "11th Hour" has a similar message. People, it reasons, just can't seem to connect what they do with what is happening in the world.
"11th Hour" is the better of the two films at reminding their audiences of the power they have. The truth is that we can do something. The movie shows that even our scrubbed history books are replete with instances in which abuses of power have been successfully fought. People are fighting back against environmental abuse, too, the movie tells us. Why isn't there such a call to action in "No End in Sight"? It seems absurd, watching the two movies back to back, that there isn't one unified front. They both point to essentially the same troublemaker the oil industry.
There are, as "11th Hour" demonstrates, many manmade factors eroding the sustainability of life on earth. The movie also explains real, available technology waiting in the wings to help. There is no bigger obstacle, however, keeping us from solutions, from breathing easier, you might say, than the few men and women who wield the enormous power of the oil industry and who are richer, "11th Hour" reminds us, than all the automakers combined.
Both films acknowledge big oil, and how much it stands to lose (and we to gain) by its expulsion from our government. Both movies fall short, however, in offering ways to make this happen.
Part of the problem is in the medium itself. We have been trained since birth to see film as entertainment, to let it wash over us. Most movies that want to do more than entertain don't seem to realize this. When we walk away from "The 11th Hour" and "No End in Sight," will we take their lessons with us? And if we do, what then? What do we do? That's one thing both of these otherwise excellent documentaries fail to say. S
"The 11th Hour" (PG) 95 min.
"No End in Sight" (NR) 102 min.