News Column

The Wisconsin State Journal Doug Moe column

November 6, 2013


Nov. 06--Four years ago, Robert Stone brought his latest documentary to Madison for the Wisconsin Film Festival.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Stone, who majored in history at UW-Madison in the late 1970s.

Stone studied history, but he lived movies. He hung out at the film department on campus, offering to work the camera for any student production that could use him. By night, there was the bounty of the campus film societies, which turned basement classrooms into theaters. It's where a generation of students -- videocassette was in its infancy -- first learned to read subtitles.

"All we did was go to movies," Stone was recalling this week. "It was great."

In April 2009, Stone's film, "Earth Days," about the founding of the modern environmental movement, played at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Audience reaction was positive. There was a question and answer period afterward.

It was at a similar session, some months earlier, after "Earth Days" closed the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, that Stone fielded a question that put him on the path to his next film. Someone asked his opinion of nuclear power. Stone deflected the question to one of his "Earth Days" subjects, Stewart Brand, founder of "The Whole Earth Catalog." Brand, it seemed, had come to embrace nuclear energy.

"The place went nuts," Stone said later, describing the moment to the New York Times. "A hundred hands went up. I realized that this is the elephant in the room."

The elephant became the subject of Stone's latest, and most provocative, documentary, a film he also calls his most personal and most important.

"Pandora's Promise," which airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on CNN, describes how a number of major figures in the environmental movement -- Brand and author Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," among them -- have changed their minds about nuclear power. This new view holds that not only is nuclear energy not inherently evil, it's the only viable way to combat climate change and save the planet. Stone, the filmmaker, is a subscriber.

Since its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, "Pandora's Promise" has produced a spirited response. "This is a film that should be seen," Time magazine noted, "and by environmentalists most of all."

But Manohla Dargis in the New York Times called it an exercise in "deck-stacking" in which thoughtful anti-nuclear arguments are ignored. At a discussion after a screening in June, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told Stone he felt the film to be an "elaborate hoax."

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, in a rave review after seeing the film at Sundance, called Stone "the most under-celebrated great documentary filmmaker in America."

After graduating UW-Madison with his history degree, Stone -- who now lives in upstate New York -- headed for New York City to make his way in film. His first documentary, "Radio Bikini," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1987 (Stone's senior essay in Madison was on the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll). His subsequent films included "Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst" in 2004, and "Oswald's Ghost," about the Kennedy assassination, in 2007.

"Green Days" came next, and in interviews around its release in 2009, Stone revealed that his passion for environmentalism dated to childhood. At age 11, in New Jersey, he borrowed his parents' movie camera and made an anti-pollution film, interviewing people on the street in Princeton.

"Green Days" had an interesting Madison connection, apart from Stone's own and Gaylord Nelson's surpassing importance to the environmental movement.

The opening sequence of "Green Days" includes color film of President John F. Kennedy giving a speech at the airport in Ashland, in northern Wisconsin, during a September 1963 visit. Kennedy came at the request of Nelson, newly elected to the U.S. Senate and pushing to have the Apostle Islands designated as national parkland.

The footage was shot by Madison documentary filmmaker, philanthropist and environmental activist Stuart Hanisch, who was making a film on the Apostle Islands.

Hanisch, who died in 2002, also produced campaign commercials for Robert Kastenmeier and Paul Soglin. When Soglin learned, in 2008, that some of Hanisch's work was going to be used in Stone's "Earth Days," he was not surprised. "Stuart was an environmentalist," Soglin said, "before two percent of the population knew the word."

"Pandora's Promise" grew out of Stone's experience with "Earth Days," and in our telephone conversation this week, the director told me reaction to the new film, apart from those he called professional anti-nuclear activists, has been overwhelmingly positive.

Stone makes a careful case, and it is a case -- the film has a point of view -- that nuclear energy does not equate with nuclear weapons, that it is safer than fossil fuels and infinitely better for the environment, and that solar and wind power simply can't meet the world's energy needs.

"Young people get this," he said. "Young people aren't afraid of technology."

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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