If there’s one thing most millionaires want you to forget, it’s that they can do pretty much anything. Some of our most notorious money-havers– I really don’t need to say their names, do I?– have spent the better part of their careers playing an elaborate PR shell game, framing themselves as underdogs railing against the “elites” (who, incongruously, mostly seem to be minorities and freelance journalists). Others will make a public stance of “doing their part” in a way that doesn’t actually entail “doing” much of anything: signing some checks for tax write-offs, hiring someone to found a charitable organization, putting their name on something nice enough that they hope you forget some of the other things they’ve done (visited a Sackler gallery lately?). It’s something of a shock, then, when one sees a wealthy public figure actually rolling up their sleeves and doing something to make the world a better place for the rest of us to live in: You mean all of you could have done that all along??
This is roughly the experience of watching Wild Life, the new documentary from the Oscar-winning team behind the mountaineering phenomenon Free Solo. The subjects are Doug and Kris Tompkins, two of the most influential figures in the history of outdoorswear (he co-founded The North Face and Esprit; she was the long-serving original CEO of Patagonia). Upon meeting (well into their respective careers), Doug and Kris embarked upon a radically different trajectory: moving to a ranch in Chile, the couple began purchasing vast swathes of land across the actual Patagonia region of South America with the intent of “rewilding” them– that is, converting them into national parks and reintroducing long-exterminated flora and fauna.
The Tompkins’ efforts were understandably met with skepticism (particularly among the notoriously right-wing Chilean government) and as a viewer it’s not hard to share that feeling at first; the image of these very affluent Baby Boomers buying their favorite mountains in order to save them appears, at first blush, to be the very definition of White Saviorism. But the more we learn of their crusade, it becomes apparent that these are far from the average multi-millionaire philanthropists. This is no vanity project drafted to bolster their respective brands; by the time they turned their attention toward environmentalism, Doug and Kris had both divested from their respective companies and permanently left their California mansions for the wilds of the real Patagonia (though it must be said that their jungle compound is still leagues more luxurious than any home I will ever be able to afford). They may be richer than god, but no one can accuse the Tompkins of not walking the walk.
It’s also hard not to be won over by the Tompkins themselves. Like last year’s Fire of Love, Wild Life is framed as a tragic love story as much as a nature documentary (Doug died in a kayak accident in 2015). The motivations for their actions are obvious– slowing climate change and saving the earth are fairly self-justifying goals– but it seems unlikely that they would have found such drive if they hadn’t been there to egg each other on. Despite not formally meeting until middle age Doug and Kris Tompkins were clearly crazy about each other to an almost embarrassing degree; in one of the funniest and sweetest moments of the film, we see excerpts from a DVD slideshow Doug made Kris for her birthday, filled with such charmingly cringe-inducing in-joke captions as “Lolo loves his Birdy!” The portions surrounding Doug’s death, meanwhile, are almost unbearably sad. As corny as it sounds, it is as if the Tompkins were trying to save the world so they could continue to live in it together.
Of course, this is a film shot in the mountains of Patagonia by the makers of Free Solo, so it should go without saying that there is no shortage of panoramic footage of Andean vistas. To this end, one of the film’s throughlines is Kris’ expedition to the summit of a mountain which she and Doug had always dreamed of scaling together. This footage is appropriately breathtaking– so much so that it at times threatens to overwhelm the message of the film (even shots of areas ravaged by mining and development are pretty damn stunning). It does, however, convey what it is about this land that would inspire these people to upend their entire lives to protect it (to say nothing of creating multiple international companies encouraging people to get out and explore it). As Doug notes in an archival interview, even their investments (which ultimately numbered in the millions of acres) hardly amount to a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of climate change and deforestation, but at least it’s something.
From an activism standpoint, it’s sometimes tough to know what to do with Wild Life’s case study; I, personally, do not have the means to purchase several million acres of land and convince the Chilean government to recognize them as national parks, and I somehow don’t see many billionaires watching this and having a sudden Scrooge-style about-face. Nevertheless, Wild Life should serve as a wakeup call– not for the dire effects of deforestation and strip-mining (on which I trust most folks reading this are on the same page), but for the fact that there exist people on this earth who could take steps to help fix it, but choose not to (or, perhaps more likely, would never think to). A person with a large sum of money and a good heart, like Doug and Kris Tompkins, has the ability to effect more good in the world than you or I could possibly comprehend. Sadly, that particular combination is a rare one, and most spend their time and energy making themselves even richer. So what can we do? Not much, unfortunately. But if we keep raising hell to the point that it becomes socially unacceptable for these people not to do something, they might just begrudgingly do some good.
dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin
Now playing @ Coolidge Corner Theatre