“Black Gold,” reviewed
The new Paramount+ documentary about Exxon’s “cover-up of the century” premiered in theaters this week.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
“We’re only just starting to get to grips with this history.” “We’re finally looking in the right place.” “Those skeletons in the closet keep falling out.”
So said some of the talking heads featured at the end of “Black Gold,” a new documentary from Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky that aims to tell “the story of the cover-up of the century”: Exxon’s efforts to deceive the public about climate change. I saw a 90-minute version of the film, which premiered in theaters on Wednesday. The full three-part premiere will be streaming on Paramount+ starting next week.
The 90-minute film is sometimes slap-dash, sometimes hectic in introducing the many characters and historical moments that comprise the timeline between the oil and gas industry’s first knowledge, more than 50 years ago, that burning fossil fuels would cause climate change, and our current failure to transition to renewable energy. It’s a lot of ground to cover.
But “Black Gold” does serve as an excellent primer into the web of deception choreographed by ExxonMobil to obstruct climate action, including the front groups, deniers, and operatives it hired to do its bidding — as well as the scientists, government officials, researchers, and regular people — oh, and nuns — trying to hold the industry to account.
The documentary opens with an executive from the American Petroleum Institute extolling the virtues of extracting fossil fuels “for the benefit of mankind” as part of the “religious principle upon which this nation was created.” Soon after, we’re inundated with biblical images of climate disasters, apocalypse-level hurricanes, and floods.
Sister Pat Daly, from the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, and a prominent shareholder at ExxonMobil, is hailed for facing down Goliath, relentlessly lobbying the company to own up to its lies and do better on climate. As investigative journalist Amy Westervelt, who recently spoke about climate accountability to EXXONKNEWS, remarked, “It’s really hard for [Exxon] to talk shit about a nun.”
On the other end of the film’s spectrum of good versus evil stands Lee Raymond, Exxon’s CEO from 1993 to 2005. Often captured stone-eyed in his suit or leering behind his predecessor and former CEO Lawrence Rawl, waiting for his turn in the spotlight, Raymond is a natural boogeyman and formidable villain. His upbringing in South Dakota, as depicted by a childhood friend, is laced with themes of cut-throat ambition and his community’s warnings that if you do wrong, you’ll go straight to hell. Consumed by his desire to reshape Exxon into a more cunning company and make bank, Raymond plays a central role in downplaying climate science and directing the company’s campaign to delay action, creating a slow-burning hell for us all.
The company’s immorality, as described by former company scientists, whistleblowers, former fossil fuel allies, industry watchdogs, and Al Gore — a cast you might largely recognize from PBS Frontline’s “The Power of Big Oil” — went far beyond the usual for any for-profit corporation in capitalist America. “It’s hard to imagine putting the fate of humanity at such risk for more money,” said the ever-present Gore.
“From a human perspective, it is the gravest sin I can imagine,” said Christine Arena, a former executive for public relations giant Edelman, who now speaks out against the industry’s work spreading misinformation on behalf of Big Oil (you can read our interview with her here).
One former Exxon scientist elected to keep his identity anonymous in the film because, as he put it, “you never know whether ExxonMobil will suddenly decide that you’re encroaching on their business interests and come after you.” He explains that he was part of a climate research division that was abruptly ended by Raymond once their findings began to reflect poorly on Exxon’s main business in oil and gas. He said that as he and other scientists started warning executives of climate change, “we were sort of regarded as parasites.”
“Black Gold” gives more focus than “The Power of Big Oil” to the growing momentum to hold fossil fuel majors accountable, from congressional hearings to lawsuits. But it also puts too much faith in the power of investors and the stock market to enact meaningful change. Plentiful air time is given to an “activist” investor from Engine #1, one of three to win a seat on Exxon’s board of directors last year, who promises to change things from the inside. But as the documentary itself reveals in its final sequence, Exxon’s latest “climate pledge” — which came out after the Engine #1 investors won their seats — doesn’t account for 90% of its own carbon footprint, putting the onus on consumers to reduce emissions instead.
Perhaps one of the film’s greatest lessons comes from Anniek Hansen, whose husband, James Hansen, is the NASA scientist famous for warning about climate change in his 1988 testimony before the U.S. Senate.
“You’re not a hero,” she tells her husband with a smile, rejecting the interviewer’s prompting to idolize him as such. He was simply doing the right thing.
Facing the demise of our planet, that’s all any of us can ask.
You can watch the three-part documentary on Paramount+ starting Tuesday, May 17.
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