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All I Know I've Learned at the Movies

Today's most meaningful stories are told in darkened rooms where people munch on popcorn and stare at large flickering screens. Movie images are extremely powerful. In fact, they have a way of overwhelming all other information.

When I think of American gangsters, I don't think of John Gotti. I think of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. I enjoyed the music of Mozart for years before the movie Amadeus came out. But what do I see when I think of the composer now? Tom Hulce. The actor's face is fused in my mind with the idea of Mozart.

A lot of Americans learned about nuclear power by seeing The China Syndrome . I haven't seen that film for 15 years and I can still picture the snarling power station boss and the frightened faces of Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda as they pondered a meltdown.


The problem with movies and other fairy tales, of course, is they may get the story wrong. Or at least they tell stories that become obsolete with new information. A cover story in the New York Times Magazine suggests that nuclear power may not be scary. It may be the thing that can turn around global warming.

On the Film Club of the Air, we've recently discussed two documentaries that illustrate the threat of global warming and the danger of doing nothing about it. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth describes global warming and its likely environmental effects in clear, frightening detail. The other film, Who Killed the Electric Car , describes how a golden opportunity to dramatically reduce our use of oil was killed due to greed and complacency.

So what is the college of movie knowledge teaching us now? Are the good guys in favor of electric cars and nuclear power? What would Jane Fonda say? And does she picture Tom Hulce when she thinks about Mozart?

The irony in Who Killed the Electric Car is that a lot of the people who spread the gospel of the EV-1, the electric car built by General Motors, were Hollywood movie stars. You watch the movie and say, "Hey, there's Ed Begley Jr.! There's Tom Hanks! There's Mel Gibson! And haven't I seen that woman on Baywatch?" Apparently, they all drove the EV-1 before GM undermined the program and cancelled the leases.

But we take movie stars less seriously than the characters they play. Who Killed the Electric Car is also a documentary film which will probably be seen by one one-hundredth of the audience that will see the new version of Pirates of the Caribbean .


What's the moral of this story? Use your head. Use less gas. Don't take movies too seriously. Oh, and listen to the Film Club of the Air. We'll tell you what's really going on.