It was an inauspicious, if dramatic, start for what is now probably the world’s biggest and most recognised environmental activist group. A rag-tag gang of determined individuals, including such early members as Bill Darnell and Patrick Moore, setting sail for the tiny island of Amchitka, Alaska, in 1971, in an effort to stop President Nixon’s planned underground nuclear testing – told through previously unseen and remarkably high-quality footage. Though they faced many obstacles, and ultimately were unable to prevent the tests from going ahead, it was the first step towards what is now a multi-million dollar organisation.
The key figure, reluctantly so, was Robert ‘Bob’ Hunter, a journalist-turned-activist who laid down his quill in favour of building what Rex Wyler, Greenpeace campaign photographer, describes as ‘an ecology movement on the same scale as the civil rights movement [and] the women’s movement’.
Sadly, while most of the key figures from those early days are able to give their own version of events on the film directly, Hunter’s early death in 2005 from cancer robbed the world of a pioneering figure of the environmental movement, and limits his involvement to selections of writing, poignant though it is, punctuating throughout the film.
And while the desire for a large-scale environmental movement was thinking ahead of its time, arguably even more so was Hunter’s understanding of how powerful imagery could capture people’s imagination (he coined the term ‘mind bomb’ to refer to what we might nowadays call ‘going viral’) and enforce their ideas in a way which his writing could not. His on-film slip of the tongue (“This is theatre! Pardon me, this is reality”) perfectly summed up his vision for Greenpeace, with obvious symbolism, characters and a narrative arc (e.g. Greenpeace = good, Russian whalers = bad) which anyone could get onboard with. He envisaged the images first, then organised how to make them a reality.
For a story about some fairly mild-mannered people, the film is surprisingly heart-racing at times, not least during the group’s thrilling first confrontation with Russian whalers, and, while it wasn’t the result Greenpeace wanted, footage of the earth rippling like a bedspread during Nixon’s underground nuclear explosion is quite a sight to behold. Overall, the film is slick, pacy, very professionally produced, and through the use of psychedelic effects and off-the-time music, subtly lowers the viewer into the mood of the 1970s, enhancing the experience of getting under the skin of these pioneers.
It’s hard not to be struck by the similarities between the conservation vocabulary used in 1971 and the present day, and therefore to wonder exactly how much progress has been made during the intervening years. On the other hand, horrific footage of dying whales and seal clubbing do illustrate ways in which the world has changed, and is a tribute to the activists who fought for these causes.
As seems to be the way with Greenpeace, there isn’t any white-washing of the many divisions and disagreements which tore the group apart for many years, no attempt to play down the way in which Hunter went from being an indomitable hero to facing mutiny within his own organisation, as well as the ludicrous squabbles which ensued as the organisation grew globally. The fact that those founders later splintered into career paths which are in some cases dramatically different from each other (especially Moore who subsequently became a vocal critic of Greenpeace) is not only not hidden, but highlighted.
Ultimately, it’s a celebratory film about the quietly inspirational Bob Hunter, and it’s fitting that his family, including daughter Emily – who has confidently followed in his footsteps – are able to tell his whole life story, including the television and other work which he undertook in his post-Greenpeace days.
As photographer Rex Wyler puts it: ‘Bob embodied what I think of as real, true leadership. He was a visionary, he could look into the future and imagine things that didn’t yet exist, and he could inspire and empower people to contribute.’ Where the world would be now without Bob Hunter’s visions, we will never know, but it’s hard to believe the environmental movement – let alone Greenpeace itself – would have gained anything like such a popular foothold without his belief that he and his organisation could, in fact, change the world.