An impressively crafted documentary offers grim reality but little solution.
What happens after our exploitation of oil reaches its peak? A Crude Awakening offers the ominous metaphor of a steep ascent up the mountain of oil dependency followed by a steeper descent, or rather, a free fall. The speed suggested by that image is matched by the form and content of the documentary, which launches into its bold position on the oil crisis: that end times are not imminent but already here, then zips gracefully through its argument.
That argument is aggressive and dynamic, letting an international team of experts explain from their perspectives of economics, politics, history, and cultural context. The documentary's high production values include beautiful cinematography spanning the globe, insightful archival footage of the oil industry and the cultural artifacts it produced, and a generic though appropriately moody Philip Glass soundtrack. These polite aesthetics only partially buffer the assured dissidence at the core of the film.
The clarity of the film's central argument is its strength, followed by the elegance of its visuals and editing. That argument is laid bare and with brave language: that oil is "god”, that oil is "more real than money", and that it is the sole motivating factor for the wars attempting to democratize the Middle East. The cast of international experts are diverse in background and in level of investment with the issue at hand. Some are energy experts with holistic assessments of international plight; others are economic or political specialists who provide smaller pieces of the puzzle. The film strategically assembles these pieces into the undeniable conclusion that we are experiencing fuel dependency’s zero hour, and that an international race for global power and the developing world's arrogant disregard for consequence throughout the last century is to blame.
Directors Basel Gelpke and Ray McCormack promise a global economic meltdown and an end to our way of living, and they allow experts to estimate its time of arrival. They all predict it will happen within 40 years, and one says the time has clearly arrived. Further, they directly attack the Bush administration, citing the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a cover for their intention of preemptively securing Iraq's oil fields. They extend their criticism of the Bush administration to an age-old "shoot the messenger" mentality: political leaders that placate public perceptions of environmental and economic disasters succeed, and those who offer bleak reality fail.
To the side of all of its bad news, the documentary does acknowledge the slow shift in consciousness that is leading people in the US to adapt greener lifestyles and suggests that hybrid vehicles like the Prius are promising, though it ultimately dismisses these efforts as too little, too late. There simply isn't enough time to replace our oil dependence with these developing technologies, so we are entering a chaotic gap in fuel resources.
The integrity of A Crude Awakening is achieved by its linear structure and lucidly delivered by its visuals. The film provides a basic education of the history of oil dependency, beginning with its birth as a global industry in Venezuala, moving through its prime as an American resource until the '50s, and ending with its peak in the Middle East. The archival footage shows America's cultural relationship with oil through commercials from the ‘50s. These express absolute endorsement of a petroleum-based economy, revealing the queasy irony of the absolute dependence to follow.
This footage is packed with the abundance promised in that era: oil rigs overflowing and products chugging down assembly lines to be enjoyed by middle class families. Through elegant editing, these images are countered with still tableaus of contemporary decay. The camera lingers silently on abandoned oil rigs, empty factories, and polluted, stagnant water. These pictures clearly express the wistfulness for unspoiled nature and the environmental ravages caused by exploitation of oil without spoken data, and the documentary's baseline sense of finiteness can be discerned in these moments.
The DVD contains extra interviews with Colin Campbell, Matthew Simmons, Fadhil Chalahi, and David L. Goodstein, and draws in-depth information from their technical backgrounds to help explain the core points of the documentary, specifically the meaning of the term "peak oil" and how it represents a point of no return. These interviews are interesting, but they only add reinforcement to what is already understood by now, rather than providing fresh insight.
A Crude Awakening could be a companion piece to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, linked by its polemic message, the breadth of the information it presents, and the quality of its production values, though its lack of attachment to a single political figure may make it more effective, or at least more capable of reaching a wider audience, because it makes the documentary's politics, while focused, slightly stealthier.