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Case Number 18198: Small Claims Court

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No Impact Man

Oscilloscope // 2009 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // January 28th, 2010

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All Rise...

This film had a negative impact on Judge Roy Hrab's mood.

The Charge

Saving the world, one family at a time.

The Case

There is so much wrong with the eco-documentary No Impact Man that it is difficult to figure out where to begin. So, let's start with the premise. In November 2006, Colin Beavan, an author of magazine articles and a couple of historical non-fiction books, decided to cut back drastically on his family's consumption of material goods and modern day conveniences: no toilet paper, no carbon-based transportation, no new clothes, no food produced outside of a 250 mile radius of the city, and (temporarily) no electricity. It's all in the name of having no net environmental impact, or so he claims. Why would someone chose to do something so extreme?

Why indeed? It's difficult to tell. Beavan states at the outset that he is not an "eco-expert" and he never undertakes a critical analysis to determine what impact his family's activities have on the environment in order to achieve his goal. What is known is that this gimmick scored, as the documentary shows, lots and lots of publicity for Beavan. His experiment gets his project featured in a New York Times article, he appears as a guest on radio shows, as well as television appearances on the Colbert Report and Good Morning America. He also blogs about the whole experience. And, of course, produced this documentary. Plus, it got him a book deal, resulting in the tome No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. Last, but not least, Columbia Pictures plans to make a feature film based on the book. Pretty nice outcomes for Colin, no? But what about saving the planet? I'll get to that soon enough.

What about the film, though? Well, the title, No Impact Man, is misleading. Even without doing any real calculations, it is evident that the Beavans do not live a zero-impact life for a year. For one, the family, which includes wife Michelle and daughter Isabella, continue living in their lower 5th Avenue apartment in New York City with running water and toilet. Further, the electricity is not phased-out until the six month mark. Also, Colin continues to blog after the electricity is shut-off. Interesting. Indeed, aside from Michelle's caffeine withdrawal, the project doesn't seem to be that onerous. That's not surprising when you live in a good neighbourhood in NYC with convenient access to farmers' markets and don't want for cash.

Of course, if Colin truly believed in setting an example, he could have moved his family to a log cabin in the woods or, at the very least, a farming community, but those possibilities don't seem to have been considered. Instead, they go biking, sit around their apartment with candle light, and buy plenty of fresh produce to eat. Further, as indicated above, no serious cost-benefit analysis on their pre and post-project lifestyle is ever conduct, or even contemplated. In fact, near the end of the film, Colin states, "It's not meant to be scientific. It's just meant to be philosophical." Pardon me? The statement is a damning admission, displaying a profound lack of curiosity about changing lifestyles and improving the environment in general. He never goes beyond spouting environmental bromides at an ever increasing rate as the film proceeds, coming off as poorly informed narcissist. He offers little insight and absolutely nothing new to the environmental debate.

What about the rest of the family? Michelle is less annoying, she complains about the project, but her overall lack of opposition to Colin's on the fly and arbitrary rules (e.g., no public transit, but they will accept invitations to social events that don't follow the rules) is disturbing. Making things more strange is that as a writer at BusinessWeek magazine, she was the primary income earner of the family until Colin's subsequent "No Impact Man" fame. Without her there would be no project (in addition to money, it is Michelle's friend that filmed the documentary). Yet she is unable to muster the courage to give him the slap in the face he so sorely needs and deserves. The only person to sympathize with is 2-year-old Isabella for being subjected to such a silly lifestyle.

What is most disappointing about the film is the complete lack of regard and acknowledgement for the total impact of the project on the environment. By total impact, I mean not just want happened during the 12-months of the official project, but also taking into account such questions as: How many trees would be cut down to print the Colin's book? What are the other costs of producing the book? How much plastic to wrap the DVDs? What's the carbon-footprint of manufacturing and shipping the DVDs? The impact of people travelling to watch the documentary in theatres and buying the DVD? The ink split on magazine and newspaper reviews and publicity photographs? The emissions from transporting reporters to interview Colin? The impact of flying and driving around to promote the film and book? It's clear during the filming of the doc that these things would happen, but they are ignored.

Taking all of this into account, it is very plausible to speculate that the aggregate net result of the project may have caused (and continues to cause) more damage to the planet's environment than the Beavans would have produced in many lifetimes of not changing their lifestyle in any way. Then again, I guess I forgot that the project is not scientific, just philosophical.

The video is of low quality. There is grain, detail is poor, and the colors are dull. The audio is fine. The 5.1 surround delivers dialogue and sound strongly.

The DVD includes a host of extras, comprised mostly of deleted scenes that reveal nothing particularly interesting. The additional extras include an unremarkable Q&A session from the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, and the option of "clean" audio that cuts out foul language.

How can anyone take this film seriously? Some might argue that what Colin did is better than nothing; however, as noted above, it could very well be the case that the project, taken in its totality, is worse than nothing. Maybe the "No Impact Man" will attempt to calculate his net impact someday in a follow-up documentary, book, blog, etc.

The Verdict

Guilty! Now get me any Werner Herzog documentary, stat! I need to restore my faith in documentary filmmaking.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 40

Perp Profile

Studio: Oscilloscope
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Bad
• Documentary
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes
• Alternate Audio Track


• IMDb
• Official Site
• ColinBeavan.com

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