Pandora’s Promise (CNN Films, NR)

pandoraspromise 75Unfortunately, too many people confuse convincingly expressed belief with actual evidence about the true state of the world, and that’s what documentarian Robert Stone is banking on.


pandoraspromise 500

Pandora’s Promise is a single-minded issues documentary with one and only one goal: to convince you that not only has nuclear power gotten a bad rap, but that it offers the best, and perhaps only, viable solution to global warming.

There’s nothing wrong with a documentary having a point of view, nor of trying to convince the viewer of the rightness of that point of view. In truth, the “fair and balanced” documentary that gives a fair hearing to all sides is about as common these days as the unicorn or the jackalope, if it ever existed at all. However, the director is still are under obligation to make a good film. Fail to do that, and you produce a documentary that may be enjoyed as a sort of secular sermon/pep talk by those who already agree with you and want to kvell in the rightness of their opinions, but will neither interest nor convince anyone else.

Favoring a particular point of view doesn’t mean you can’t create a great film—the Paradise Lost trilogy is a case in point—but it’s much easier to string together talking heads and archival footage for 90 minutes than it is to actually do something creative with your subject. Unfortunately, Robert Stone chose the former route, although I will give him this much: He lined up an impressive crew of talking heads for his film, which is backed by a formidable array of executive producers, including Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and Virgin Group cofounder Richard Branson.

Stone’s main tactic is to train his camera on a rotating crew of attractive, well-spoken converts to the cause—including Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, British journalist Mark Lynas, activist Michael Shellenberger, author/editor Gwyneth Cravens, and nuclear expert Richard Rhodes—and have them testify as to how and why they decided nuclear was the way to go.

These spokespersons are generally situated either in beautiful natural environments, or in professionally lit interiors, with a vibe somewhere between a church confessional and the aftermath of a brainwashing session. They’re embarrassed, you see, about their former anti-nuclear opinions, but now that they’ve seen the light, they want to bring you to the light, as well. Juxtaposed against these calm, rational beings are clips of former and current anti-nuclear protestors who look totally silly by comparison. It’s the most obvious example of deck-stacking in a film that embraces that approach as a positive virtue.

Just to be clear, I’m not anti-nuclear myself, just anti-lazy filmmaking. The greatest fault of Pandora’s Promise, next to the blatant manipulation mentioned in the previous paragraph, is that it’s almost all talk, with very little evidence presented to support that talk. It’s true that everyone on the pro-nuke side speaks convincingly about their beliefs, but I don’t care, any more than I care about whether George W. Bush actually believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They didn’t, and that’s what matters. Unfortunately, too many people confuse convincingly expressed belief with actual evidence about the true state of the world, and that’s what Stone is banking on.

The most interesting part of Pandora’s Promise is a brief segment in the final half-hour on nuclear power in France. The country produces about 75 percent of its energy from nuclear plants, and has had remarkably few difficulties with it—most importantly, no equivalent of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Could this success be duplicated in the U.S., given our apparent allergy to central planning and cooperation? (Compare the health systems of the two countries if you don’t believe me.) It’s a question worth pondering, but Pandora’s Promise is too busy trotting out converted anti-nuke activists to do any real analysis of this, or any other, issue. | Sarah Boslaugh

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