Walter Peck Ghostbusters

We Don’t Need Another Green Anti-Hero

When was the last time a movie portrayed a fictional environmentalist as anything other than a villain, a punchline, a scold, or all three?

Environmentalists can’t catch a break.

Not in the literal sense. Not like how the ghoulish politicians responsible for the Flint water crisis escaped accountability for poisoning children with toxic lead. Or how a broken supreme court sentenced generations to a boiling planet based on ideology and greed. That happens every second of every day. Polluters pollute. Sometimes legally, sometimes not. People get sick. Some die. At the very most, there’s a fine that registers as a blip on a multinational corporation’s balance sheet.

No, I mean in the image department. Specifically in popular culture and narrative storytelling. I’ve written in the past about the best eco-documentaries. But when was the last time a movie portrayed a fictional environmentalist as anything other than a villain, a punchline, a scold, or all three?

In 2018’s The Rise of the Environmental Antagonist, The Mary Sue weighed in on a spate of green-minded comic book villains adapted for the big screen. The two major baddies cited were Thanos, the villain from the Avengers series, and Marius from Aquaman. Thanos was really into population control, while surface dwellers dumping trash into his ocean motivated Marius. But author Princess Weeks also exposes the trope for what it is — cover for powerful polluters and corporate forces.

I’m not siding with the villains, but I do think that it’s odd that the people who are often depicted as fighting to save our planet from the internal issues and forces are always motivated by self-interest and power. Those who do genuinely care, care to the degree that they think humanity is a crutch to protecting our future.

It might just be too political to have characters like Aquaman take on Big Oil and fracking companies, because those are still symbols of American industrialism, but if heroes are supposed to protect the Earth, that should mean protecting it from the errors humans make.

Sonny Bunch, opining on the issue a year later for the Washington Post, made no effort to malign the conceit. Instead, he doubled down on the notion.

Environmentalists make a useful villain because their malevolence can be obscured by a patina of reasonableness. Global warming and other manmade problems are going to end the world if we don’t do something — so just about anything is justified! But their villainy resonates with the masses because they actually do want to make life worse for people, for the most part.

Yeah, breathable air and clean water. What a terrible, cancer-free life. Now, I can sympathize somewhat with Sonny’s POV. He’s a talented writer. And as a former editor at the conservative Washington Free Beacon, I’m sure he’s pondered the similarities to the right’s cinematic portrayals. But there’s a Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone sized difference between tax cuts and our superheated atmosphere.

Having worked in communications for the “movement” for some time, I can attest that most of the people staffing green dot orgs are doing the job for noble reasons. Yet aside from reality-based heroes like Erin Brockovich and Robert Bilott, the image reflected from phones and flatscreens in a fictional setting about environmentalists is often derisive and mocking.

And it goes much deeper than recent comic book films. Need examples?

Likely the most famous is Walter Peck, the EPA investigator from Ghostbusters. What an amazing heel turn by William Atherton. There’s plenty of “Peck was right” takes out there. But Ghostbusters is still a perfect comedy where we merrily root against the guy trying to shut down an unlicensed fission reactor!

Leave it to a fossil fuel goon to hold Peck up as the prototypical EPA employee.

Leave it to a fossil fuel goon to hold Peck up as the prototypical EPA employee.

Indeed, Peck shined with such a brilliant, bothersome presence that each new run-in I have with a pointy-headed bureaucrat reminds me of his face–a face most viewers would agree is one of the most punchable in movie history. Now, 32 years since the film’s release and amid media buzz about the Ghostbusters reboot, EPA officials are looking and sounding more and more like Peck every day.

With each new round of regulations from EPA, I can’t help but wonder if the motto over there is “What Would Walter Peck Do?

If an EPA investigator discovered a rogue nuclear device in my neighborhood, I’d hope they’d follow in Walter’s emasculated footsteps.

Another enviro-comic moment is 30 Rock’s Greenzo, played by David Schimmer. The character was a response to NBC’s “Green is Universal” week. The broadcasting corporation forced its shows to include an environmental message. Greenzo is “America’s first non-judgmental, business-friendly environmental advocate.”

Of course, being judgmental and pious about the environment is the open pit mine where comedy gold is extracted. There’s Dwight Schrute’s Recyclops from the Office, Funny Or Die’s Captain Planet, Jesse Eisenberg on Modern Family as a smug, uber green neighbor, “Enviro-dale” on Community, and Lisa the Tree Hugger from the Simpsons — to name a few.

Speaking of Springfield, the Simpson’s saved clowning on the EPA for their big screen debut. When a mutant squirrel is detected in town, EPA Administrator Russ Cargill encases Springfield under a protective dome.

For Armageddon, (alt title We Looked Up) the dedicated activists at Greenpeace are only onscreen for comic relief. Bruce Willis’s character, oil driller Harry Stamper is introduced teeing golf balls at their ship while the protestors cower.

In Yellowstone, an environmental activist is easily tricked by Beth Dutton into committing a crime. The perfectly named Summer Higgins then stumbles into fifteen years of hard time in federal prison.

Even a legendary environmentalist like Dr. Suess’s the Lorax can’t avoid stepping on a rake. The 2012 film adaptation’s green message was derailed by charges of eco-unfriendly product placements.

Steven Segal’s portrayal of EPA Special Agent Jack Taggert in 1997’s Fire Down Below could’ve been the start of a bona fide franchise. How many alphabet soup Federal Police movies have there been? From the FBI to the DEA, everyone gets their time in the thriller movie sun. But not EPA special agents, even though they’re legit heroes.

Fire Down Below bombed on release and has aged as well as Steven Segal’s foreign policy accomplishments. The blandest of action flicks, it makes two key blunders. First, with absolute music legends Kris Kristofferson and Levon Helm in the cast, they chose to have Segal do a musical number? That’s like asking Steve Milloy to serve on a presidential EPA transition team. Second, there’s very little actual EPA special agent work. The only time we see Segal do anything related to a lab, some hillbilly kid pees in the stream as he’s taking a water sample, presumably for comic effect.

I get it. Crafting the latest cancer study or doomsday climate scenario into entertaining content is hard to do, which is why Don’t Look Up was so successful. And it’s true, some environmentalists can be sanctimonious nags.

However, Ben and Jody, a 2022 Indonesian action-drama by director Angga Dwimas Sasongko now on Netflix, makes an entertaining and convincing green statement. When illegal loggers threaten a jungle village, two coffee baristas help martial arts trained sisters fight back against “the company,” and its brutal enforcer played by The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian.

With Ben and Jody, there’s evidence more positive stories are out there to tell about heroic environmentalists.

Next week in Part 2, I talk with industry professionals about the issue.


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  1. Pingback: Live Green or Die Hard - Don Carr

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