The Island of Doubt

Sizzle: A review

I wanted to like Sizzle. I really did. I like Randy Olson’s contributions here on ScienceBlogs to Shifting Baselines. Randy is a former marine biologist and I have a degree in marine biology. He thinks the climate crisis is one of if not the most important public policy challenge of our time. So do I. Global warming pseudoskeptics drive him crazy. Me, too. If anyone should appreciate what Randy’s trying to do with his latest documentary, it’s me. The problem is, I wasn’t quite sure what it is he’s trying to do until the last section of the film. I think I figured it out, but I must report that I wasn’t impressed.

The producers describe Sizzle as a “novel blend” of mockumentary, documentary and reality. Which is to say, it’s part Spinal Tap, part Fahrenheit 9/11, part, well… part something else entirely. It’s not easy to make such a hybrid viable, and Randy’s just not that experienced a filmmaker to pull it off.

Whatever genre Netflix decides to slot it into, Sizzle has a simple story. It follows Randy as he tries to make a straight-ahead documentary that fills in what he says is the big gap in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, specifically, “where are all the scientists?” Mayhem ensues, as they say, thanks to a difficult crew and producers who don’t share Randy’s passion.

After many troubled shooting days and anxious nights, Randy comes to the realization that he can’t tell a straight-ahead science story and expect anyone to care. He needs emotion more than facts. He needs a way to engage the audience. In other words, he learns why Gore’s slide show and movie are the way they are.

Which is all very well. Along the way there are a few good laughs, and a poignant extended segment reminding us just how difficult it will be adapting to a changed climate if the American response to Hurricane Katrina is any indication.

But the problem with the film is that Randy’s enlightenment on the importance of telling a good story ;;; something every good journalist and a fair number of climatologists already know — seems to be the central message of the piece. It’s as if Randy is again criticizing science journalists and scientists for not recognizing the fundamental requirement of successful communications. Which is also what he did in his previous documentary, Flock of Dodos.

Maybe I’m missing something, but that’s all I got out of the 85 minutes. I found it a bit condescending and more than a bit unfair. In addition to An Inconvenient Truth, which is as much about Al Gore as it is climate change, there’s a long list of good books about climate change by authors who have already grasped the need for more than just the facts. There’s Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, David King and Gabrielle Walker’s The Hot Topic, and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, to name three.

Sure, there are plenty of efforts out there that fall flat because the authors or directors can’t tell a good story. (Does anyone remember Leo DiCaprio’s movie, whatever it was called?) But I suspect that Randy has gotten at little too wrapped up in Matt Nisbet’s “framing” theory, which posits that we all need to offer better metaphors and passionate appeals in our scientific story-telling. And the problem with that criticism is not that telling better stories isn’t a good idea, but that it’s already being done in spades. To imply otherwise, through a muddled comedic mock-doc, is to distract our attention away from whatever the real reasons are for our failure to make climate change the top priority of every politician, executive and pundit on the planet.

I don’t know what that reason is. I just don’t think Sizzle will get us any closer to the answer.

On the positive side, I must thank Randy for introducing us to Dr. George Chilingarian, one of the most bizarre climate change pseudoskeptics in an already bizarre field. It was also instructive, and sad, to see what’s really happened to the once respectable dean of meteorology Bill Gray.