On March 14, Gary Jobson showed his documentary, Energy on Trial, which he’d been working on for a year and a half, to a rapt audience in an Idaho Falls movie theater. The film is about Earth’s ever-depleting energy resources, and while Jobson embraces the need to intelligently utilize everything we can to keep our civilization chugging along, he distinguishes himself by coming out as a champion for nuclear power. (Yes, the reason for the unusual location for the screening was that it’s near the Idaho National Laboratory, the federal nuclear research facility — there’s a nearby town called Atomic City — that employs more than 4,000 local people.)
Of course, this screening occurred just three days after the tsunami had decimated Japan, causing what could be the worst nuclear disaster of all time, which was then just beginning to unfold. The question is, Does Jobson have the worst timing ever? Or is he that rare filmmaker who might be catching lightening (or, as he’d like to have it, fission) in a bottle?
In case you haven’t heard of Jobson before, he’s a nonfiction filmmaker of a different stripe. Jobson is a yachtsman, a legend in the sailing world who won the America’s Cup in 1977 and is a respected commentator on sailing events. He’s made a career as a television commentator and producer, mainly for ESPN. He’s also been celebrated for kicking cancer; he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003, and rebounded after receiving a stem-cell transplant.
“Honestly, I didn’t know which way I was going,” Jobson told me over the phone when I contacted him about his documentary. “I didn’t want to be a shill for anyone.”
That sounded reasonable, so I accepted his offer to see the film, which he was showing to some friends at an unlikely spot for a doc screening: the New York Yacht Club on West 44th Street. Jobson, a tall, crisp man with a neat head of silver hair, greeted me outside of an enormous room festooned with a furniture store’s worth of dark leather couches, dark wood and model boats.
Soon, I found myself tucked away in an upstairs boardroom cloaked by black-out curtains, decorated with chandeliers, a fireplace guarded by a toy cannon, and paintings of boats in heavy frames of gold. Five men, all dressed in blazers and ties, sat around the long table, which faced a flat screen. I swear, I was ready for Jason Bourne, bound-and-gagged, to be dragged before us.
But no such drama unfolded. Instead, the film started.
Energy on Trial surveys the various energy resources available to us, and presents them at an engaging, if rapid, clip. Jobson basically lines them up — oil, coal, natural gas, wind, solar, etc. — and knocks them down. He uses graphics and talking-head interviews that indicate the respective failure of each resource. Well, not entirely. The film reminds its viewers that all of these forms of energy should be a part of a greater U.S. energy policy, but it’s clear that the film is leading up to nuclear power as the best answer.
Jobson uses a host of people to build his case, and the presentation of nuclear power is, if not totally convincing, at least an engaging argument. He talks with intelligent experts, many of whom clearly work for, or with, the nuclear industry, but there are those who are not so clearly so, such as Stewart Brand, a former Merry Prankster and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog; Mark Mills, a Forbes writer; and Patrick Moore, an early Greenpeace activist. I found those three men most compelling.
I learned that 80 percent of France is powered on nuclear, which is impressive. I saw clips of President Obama, who has been asking the nation to reconsider nuclear, which would be quite a turnaround, because we haven’t built a new reactor in close to thirty years. The doc answers questions about waste disposal and safety issues, and then it makes its strongest case of all, which is how incredibly efficient nuclear power is at converting energy. Jobson uses all sorts of graphics that got me inching toward sympathy for his point of view.
When the film was over, the discussion turned to Japan, and Jobson referred to the impact as a “hornets’ nest of hysteria.” He says he’s still tweaking the film, dealing with the news as it unfolds. (Later, in an email, he reiterated that what I saw was “far from a finished product.”) But then he mentioned that he had interviewed two representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists in order to include an anti-nuke perspective in the film, but that after the interviews were conducted, UCS had pulled permission to use them.
I didn’t like the suggestion that some scientists may have been concerned about Jobson’s film, so I did some research. I quickly saw that my fellow journalist, Mark Mills, used to work in the Reagan administration and co-authored a book dubiously entitled, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy; but even more disheartening was Patrick Moore, who is apparently considered by Greenpeace to be a total turncoat; a paid consultant for many of the causes Greenpeace deplores, one who is even skeptical about climate change being caused by humans.
Some of the “truths” asserted in the film also began to slip, such as the film’s assessment that the percentage of our energy consumption is low relative to that of other nations; that may be true, but Jobson neglects to mention, as I learned from reports on the Union of Concerned Scientists website, that we are such a large energy hog that we actually end up being one of the top users of nuclear power (we have 100-plus reactors currently working).
None of which entirely discounts Jobson’s film, but it was feeling more and more like a polemic. The film would be so much more powerful if Jobson had recast it to be self-referentially seen through his eyes; one man’s search for answers, and here’s what he came up with. I couldn’t wrong a guy for coming clean on that score, whatever his final answer is.
Either way, I do think it’s worth it for those interested in the subject to see the film. It’s certainly a discussion worth having, and Jobson will be contributing to the dialogue. What I’d really love to see, though, is after a screening, a fair debate between those for and those against nuclear power.
With that in mind, I called up the Union of Concerned Scientists to get their side of things. I’ll just touch the surface of what UCS media director Elliott Negin had to say about the shortcomings of nuclear power. And about Jobson’s project.
Negin had heard about Jobson’s film about a year ago, and, noticing that many of the people in the film were known for supporting nuclear energy, he reached out to him, suggesting that Jobson interview some UCS experts.
First off, UCS is not anti-nukes, according to Negin. “We are a nuclear energy watchdog,” he says. “Our goal has always been to ensure that the industry operated its reactors as safely as possible.”
Negin says the UCS doesn’t want to close all of the current reactors, but he adds that the group is in favor of developing what he calls more cost effective renewable forms of energy, such as geothermal, wind, solar, hydroelectric and, for the time being, natural gas. He says that even Wall Street doesn’t want to go near nuclear power due to the high costs — he says it costs $9 billion to build a single reactor — and now with the crisis in Japan, the downsides are overwhelming.
He concedes that he may have been naïve in contacting Jobson, and letting him interview Ellen Vancko and Edwin Lyman, the two UCS experts. But when Negin saw a clip of Vancko that Jobson had posted on the internet, he got “pissed off” at what he thought was how her words were taken out of context, and asked that the two experts be removed.
“I knew Gary was pro-nuclear, but if you are going to do a legitimate job, you have to hear all sides on the issue,” says Negin, who hasn’t seen the film, but now calls Jobson a “propagandist,” whose film is a “wet kiss to the industry. In fact, it’s an industrial film, paid for by someone who loves the industry.”
If you flip the politics around, it’s the sort of name-calling that we often hear directed at Michael Moore, and it’s not really fair for Negin to characterize a film he has yet to see. I contacted Jobson, who didn’t want to get into it with Negin, but he did give me this quote: “The Union of Concerned Scientists have an open invitation to have a voice in Energy on Trial.”
As for Negin, after he railed about the “sleaziness” of the industry, and led me to a report which indicated that the nuclear industry has spent over $600 million lobbying in the past ten years in an attempt to spur a nuclear renaissance, he asked pointed questions about who actually was funding Jobson’s enterprise.
The same question had crossed my mind. Jobson emailed me a response to my query about financing; “I am afraid to actually add up what I have spent to date. However, I have funded all the editing, and production and I am out of pocket about $100,000. I have a group of sailing friends who have helped me with some of my expenses. Simply put this is a labor of love at the moment. I do not want any corporate sponsorship of any kind so I can keep my objectivity.”
That sounds good, right? Still, I am finding myself with a growing list of questions about a film that posits such a definitive answer on the validity of nuclear power.
Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.