‘To the End’ Review: A Documentary About Trying to Change the Systems Enabling Climate Change

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Unstoppable force meets immovable object in “To the End.” Rachel Lears’ documentary inspires in its portrait of youthful activists organizing to push impactful climate-change policies into American political reality — and exasperates in the resistance with which that urgent quest is greeted on both sides of the entrenched-power aisle. Covering several years of fast-moving events, this Sundance premiere is too exclusively U.S.-focused to be particularly viable for offshore programmers, but its topicality should stir sales interest on home turf.

Like the director’s last feature “Knock Down the House,” about the 2018 Congressional election, this one also throws a spotlight on New York state candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her successful bid for a House of Representatives seat greatly encouraged other progressives, for whom she is seen now as their principal “inside” ally — as well as conservatives’ preferred target tor outrage on nearly any subject. But the principals here are a lower-profile trio of women involved in organizations aggressively agitating for the transformational changes proposed in the Green New Deal sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez (alongside Massachusetts’ Ed Markey). That complex long-range plan aims not just to apply climate-crisis fixes, but as she puts it here, to provide “a vehicle to truly deliver economic, racial and social justice in America.”

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The highlighted figures are Varshini Prakash, co-founder of youth climate activist coalition Sunrise Movement; Alexandra Rojas, executive director of progressive political action committee Justice Democrats; and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Climate Policy Director at liberal think tank The Roosevelt Institute. They’re all women of color under 35 who see the political “establishment” not just as corrupted by corporate and other lobbyist moneys, but fundamentally deaf to the concerns of their generation. They are the ones who’ll be spending most of their lives after a climate-crisis “tipping point” many scientists see as just a decade or so away, while more than a few of their government representatives continue to debate whether that threat even exists.

Sunrise Movement explodes in public awareness after a November 2018 sit-in (which AOC joined) at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office. Crisscrossing the country to chart activity only briefly slowed by COVID, “To the End” sees gains and setbacks for these players and colleagues over the ensuing three years. Their message enters mainstream dialogue, but at the same time, there is often rotely dismissive pushback — not just from the expected “Socialism!”-screaming conservatives, but many Democrats too. With Bernie Sanders again pushed out of the way in 2020’s Presidential race, professed centrist Joe Biden at first seems weak on environmental issues, until his camp grows surprisingly inclusive of progressive allies and ideas.

Once he’s ensconced in the White House, the “Build Back Better” plan seems a worthy alternative to the “Green Deal,” couching climate policies in a warm blanket of infrastructure improvement and job creation. Or at least it does until bipartisan “compromise” guts much of its key content. Even then, its passage remains stymied by the GOP, as well as fence-straddlers like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who claims his objections occupy the “common-sense middle,” but who also happens to be the Senate’s largest recipient of coal and natural-gas industry money.

As these political developments unfold, Lears takes a reports-from-the-front approach, frequently leaving D.C. to follow door-to-door vote canvassers or protest marchers around the nation. We also see Rojas grapple with the pressures of being a frequent CNN commentator while still a relative greenhorn in her mid-20s, among other backstage glimpses; major news events like the Congressional committee hearing at which oil company CEOs feigned great “concern” over climate change, then went mum at the mention of the related disinformation campaigns they fund; and the ever-escalating, often catastrophic evidence of environmental crisis, from fires to floods.

While the recent setbacks noted here are depressing to all concerned, no one is giving up. As Prakash puts it, her generation is no longer “banking on the adults in the room to have a plan.” Those ostensible grownups are much invested in the political status quo, while she sees the only way to address ecological crisis is to fundamentally “change politics in the United States.” That means a drastic shift to policies that actually help average citizens, as well as the environment — much like the original Great Depression-era New Deal, a comparison whose respective embrace and damnation neatly demarcates one essential U.S. party divide these days.

As her own director of photography, Lears deploys a lot of sweeping drone shots to break up potential hand-held and talking-head visual monotony. Other tech and design elements are also first-rate, as “To the End” keeps its large canvas entertaining and informative. Even so, it preaches enough to the choir that this documentary can hardly serve as an introduction for those belatedly coming to terms with its central issues.

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