The money shots come late in "Chasing Ice," a documentary about the pioneering glacier photography of James Balog.
For more than an hour, we've followed him around Iceland, Greenland and Alaska as he and his assistants set up cameras facing the great ice sheets, programming them to snap photos at regular intervals. Finally, we get the big reveal: The images are arranged as time-lapse sequences in which glaciers melt away like so much butter over the course of a year.
As much as one can intellectually believe in climate change, to see it actually happening has the power to stun a viewer into wordlessness.
The rest of Jeff Orlowski's film works hard to build up its subject as an obsessive craftsman saint, and that feels vaguely beside the point. Ultimately, it's the pictures that matter -- not the man who takes them.
Orlowski shares Balog's smoldering rage at a society that refuses to face the consequences of its actions, and that rage forms the necessary spine of "Chasing Ice." This is an agit-doc with no apologies and a lot of sorrow.
Early on, "An Inconvenient Truth"-style charts show us a millennia-long dance of carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures, rising and falling in lockstep; in the past 50 years, the CO2 soars off the charts. But numbers mean little next to Balog's photos and Orlowski's video footage, which between them balance on a fulcrum between beauty and distress.
Unceasing meltwater cuts channels
To go from such images to Balog shedding tears over a malfunctioning camera or impatiently undergoing a third knee operation before heading back into the field on crutches is to jolt from the macro to the micro, from the planetary to the personal.
Because "Chasing Ice" is so effective at showing us the really big picture, these smaller moments seem oddly inconsequential (as does a dopey duet by "singer"-actress Scarlett Johansson and violinist Joshua Bell over the end credits). No, it's not fair, but when an artist opens his lens this wide and this successfully, we can't help but be more interested in what he sees than in who he is.
What Balog sees (and what Orlowski sees him seeing) is an epochal climatological change that is hastening toward the tipping point, if it hasn't already gone beyond. These photographs function as both proof and relic -- a record of a landscape's memory.
Behind the images lie an abiding scorn for those who are unwilling to recognize what's happening and a lucid dread about where we're probably heading. If that depresses you, I'm sure there's something entertaining on TV.
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for language)
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes