Directed by Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest, Canary tells the inspiring Indiana Jones-esque story of scientist/explorer Dr. Lonnie Thompson.
Canary (2023) is a biographical documentary about Dr. Lonnie Thompson, a leading glaciologist and paleoclimatologist, which means that he studies the earth’s climate during periods prior to the existence of meteorological instruments. Thompson is notable for being the first scientist to drill ice cores at high elevations, which was once considered impossible because of the logistical challenge of getting to those locations while transporting heavy equipment. Think climbing Mount Everest with mining equipment on your back.
Unlike most traditional documentaries, there is no omnipotent narrator acting as the objective voice of God declaring the undisputable truth on Dr. Thompson. Yes, there are still a plethora of talking heads, such as environmental journalist Justin Gill, science writer J. Madeline Nash (author of El Nino: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Make), Michael Mann (though not the famous auteur), and climate scientists Kim Cobb and Keith Mountain. Together, these interviewees attest to Thompson’s credibility, along with non-english speakers such as mountaineer Benjamin Vicencio, community leader Phinaya, and Marina Bermudez.
“It was like I was meeting a real-life Indiana Jones.”
Though an English speaker, civil engineer Cesar Portocarrero receives subtitles. The filmmakers interviewed Portocarrero in Peru, and he is likely the only native Spanish speaker, which conveys the unfortunate and unintended bias that only Spanish accents are difficult to understand. A more inclusive (and expensive) choice would be to provide captions for all speakers or at least all English speakers.
Canary also has an autobiographical feel by using interviews with Thompson himself, who can add being a great raconteur to his resume. His family further fleshes out his story, though the filmmakers make an interesting creative choice to limit the family interviews to telling each other’s stories instead of their own. For instance, Regina Thompson, his daughter, who according to Thompson and her own account, grounds her scientist parents by encouraging them to prioritize themselves and their family and recognize that all the data in the world may not change people’s minds.
Regina also tells the story of how her grandmother encouraged her son to dream big and escape the seeming inevitability of a life relegated to the coal mines. It is an unusual choice to let Regina tell this story instead of discussing it directly with Frances Thompson, the subject’s mother, a West Virginia widow who only testifies to how her son was interested in weather and was an outdoorsman since childhood. Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a notable glaciologist and climatologist, is mainly relegated to testifying about her husband’s glory and the importance of his work but shares nothing too personal. On the record, Mosley-Thompson agrees with her husband’s work to save life on the planet, but Regina reveals that her mother had a more sardonic explanation for her father’s lengthy absences while on expeditions.
“Science can only advance when you do things other people think can’t be done.”
Canary may have missed an opportunity to be an even better documentary than it is by not borrowing a page from Fire of Love (2022), a documentary about Katia and Maurice Krafft, the French volcanologist and filmmaking married couple. Thompson and Mosley-Thompson took a different path by choosing to have a child but still work together at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. Without reflecting on the couple’s collaboration outside of the home, directors Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest only focus on Thompson and adhere to the image of the rugged adventurer staring into the distance with an occasional drilling shot that is unavoidably and unintentionally phallic.
It valorizes and enforces the image of the man with a grander purpose than staying with his family. While it would have been challenging, the film could have tackled the nuanced complexities of a pioneering scientist who loved his family yet was not there to support them. His family may have cosigned his career path because of societal standards at the time or would still make the same choice because of the importance of his work, but maybe in retrospect those sacrifices hurt himself and those whom he loved the most.
Like Fire of Love, Canary includes Thompson’s epic archival footage and treasure trove of photographs dating back to the 1970s, which depicts majestic mountains that he traversed to do his research and indicate the arduous, rigorous physical demands of his work. In addition, O’Malley and Rivest supplement Thompson’s archives with spectacular, breathtaking shots of such locations as the Puncak Jaya Glaciers in New Guinea, Quelccaya in Peru, and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. To ensure that viewers understand the scope and challenges of these locations, the filmmakers wisely indicate the elevation height and location at the opening of each of their scenes.
“He was on a mission to find his place in this world.”
Instead of relying on the impressive camera work, Canary equates Thompson with popular culture figures like Indiana Jones and Superman. This banter detracts from their attempts to mythologize Thompson, especially for viewers who fail to see parallels. Jones and Thompson are both professors who are as comfortable in navigating dangerous terrain as the office politics of getting tenure at a university, but archaeology is distinct from paleoclimatology. Ice cores are organic and more ancient than the material culture, i.e., created physical objects like artifacts, which the fictional Jones studies. If a viewer squints enough, Jones’ constant quest for priceless antiquities that belong in a museum can be linked with Thompson’s tireless enthusiasm to get more ice cores. Thompson’s accomplishments do not require such references, and the images should speak for themselves.
Instead of leveraging the innate, dynamic trajectory of Thompson’s career, O’Malley and Rivest use the 13-minute introduction to portend that Thompson’s life story is not the documentary’s main agenda. They should have devoted that time to elaborating on the distinction between ice caps and glaciers in tropical regions versus Greenland and Antarctica. They are using Thompson’s life to segue into a call to action to fight climate change. It feels like a bait and switch, and such an introduction could alienate viewers who wanted to learn more about Thompson, but may see climate change as political, especially if those viewers do not believe in it.
“…my message was to help bring together the world.”
That demographic may walk away from the film and miss the chance to watch a sublime story. When a documentary advocates for a position from its onset, even a noble one, the film repeats the same mistake as Thompson: evidence does not typically move people. Such documentaries preach to the choir by mainly appealing to viewers who share the same beliefs as the filmmakers and their subject.
Films can and should make people feel. But to be persuasive, the filmmakers should have waited until Thompson recognizes that his research forebodes natural disaster, which occurs a good length into Canary, before settling into its climate change messaging. Even those who share the same beliefs may find a majority of the second half dull as the film replays news archival footage of conservative politicians suffering from metaphorical whiplash as their opinions change from being supportive of Thompson’s work to being outright derisive. While still pedantic, O’Malley and Rivest do a better job of drawing more subtle parallels between Thompson’s denial of his grave health conditions and his need to change his lifestyle with the refusal of large nations and financial power brokers to alter course to save life on the planet.
The bottom line.
Despite the pacing problems and naked agenda, Canary is still a feast for the eyes, which is usually reserved for documentaries like Free Solo (2018) or Touching the Void (2003). The journey of Thompson’s life is a riveting, inspiring every-man story. The humble underdog transforms into an adventurer visionary and improbable pillar of the scientific community. An inspiring story, to be certain, though one with an ending to be determined.
Canary is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.
CANARY (2023) - 7.5/10