TV Can Serve Higher Purpose

By Rob Patterson

Can television be an effective agent for social change on pressing issues? Three recent TV films suggest that it possibly can and certainly should.

In a recent column I extolled the virtues of HBO as television at its best and brightest, and my point was underscored by more of its recent offerings. Nowhere else are such matters being addressed as well than with its documentary films Gasland and Kevorkian and the dramatic movie about the subject of the latter, You Don’t Know Jack.

Gasland is a chilling if not downright scary wake-up call about the dangers of our gluttony for energy and the heartless capitalism of the companies that drill for and produce it that makes the recent Gulf oil spill look like a fun day at the beach in comparison. Made on a shoestring budget by a passionate citizen, it examines the proliferation of a natural gas extraction technique called “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” that injects a soup of some 200 poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals into shale deposits to get at the gas trapped within.

The side effect of the process is to poison water supplies to the extent that, as the film vividly depicts, the flow from kitchen faucets in family homes becomes flammable. And our government neither oversees nor regulates this process; it is exempted by the 2005 Bush/Cheney energy bill.

Hence energy companies are free to destroy our most precious and essential natural resource, water, in service to profit. This technique is plaguing our public lands in the West as well as the water supplies of more populous urban areas. And the myth of natural gas as a “clean” alternative to petroleum obscures the clear and present dangers of the process, which is being practiced nationwide. The possibility of it being introduced into the Delaware River watershed threatens such major cities as New York and Philadelphia and the populous areas around them. One can only hope that Gasland serves as a wake-up call as this danger comes perilously close to the tipping point.

The film was shown as part of HBO’s Monday night summer documentary series, which also featured the movie Kevorkian, which the premium cable network preceded with the dramatic film You Don’t Know Jack. The latter looks at the right-to-die activist doctor Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. “Dr. Death,” and his activities assisting suicides for people plagued by the ravages of diseases in the 1990s. The former examines the real life Kevorkian after his release from prison for a murder conviction and his 2008 independent run for Congress.

You Don’t Know Jack, directed by Barry Levinson, features a superb performance by Al Pacino as the Armenian-American doctor with superior support from John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Brenda Vaccaro and Danny Huston. It also makes a very compelling case for the right of suffering humans to decide when they are ready to die in its story as well as Kevorkian’s legal arguments for it.

The Kevorkian documentary underscores just how wonderfully Pacino channels this eccentric character and independent thinker. It also spotlights the all-too-rare bravery of a single man with the courage of his convictions.

In a fair and just America, people would not be poisoned so that corporations can exploit our shared natural resources. As well, those citizens whose quality of life has been compromised to the point of suffering should be allowed to determine when they want to die. But two of the most pernicious strains in our national political landscape work against those notions: the profits-over-people corporate mindset and deleterious effect of money on government policy in the former, and religious zealotry in the latter.

But maybe, just maybe, these three compelling films might raise the public awareness and discourse on such issues to effect genuine change. If fracking isn’t stopped, far more of us just might want to die as the practice poisons our citizenry. And kudos for HBO in supporting entertainment with a higher purpose.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2010

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