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The Island President: movie review

Global warming gets personal with 'The Island President,' an inspiring – and dispiriting – look at one man's fight to save his country from disappearing under a rising sea.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / April 6, 2012

Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives confronted a challenge: A rise of three feet in sea level would submerge his nation.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

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The documentary "The Island President," winner of the Audience Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, is about Mohamed Nasheed, the former leader of the Maldives, an archipelago of some 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. For most of us, the Maldives conjure up pristine beaches and superwealthy tourists, but as this film makes clear, the 30 pre-Nasheed years were presided over by dictator and torturer Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who, among other indiscretions, neglected to deal with the steadily rising ocean levels caused by melting polar icecaps. This meltdown, left unchecked, portends a rather inconvenient national submersion.

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  • Maldives

    Graphic Maldives
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Nasheed, who had been tortured by Gayoom, made a pullback in global temperatures his top presidential priority. He filmed public service announcements that included, only half in jest, a board meeting under water in scuba gear. He wheeled and dealed at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, where we see him fending off global warming deniers and naysaying government representatives (from countries ranging from India to Venezuela) in an attempt to forge an international agreement to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. (Irony alert: This man who rails so strenuously against global pollution chain-smokes his way through the movie.)

What makes Nasheed's whirligig tactics so urgent is that, unlike most other countries participating in the summit, his own nation is actually in danger of being annihilated by climate change. And yet, although he initially comes across as a zealot, he emerges, to the disappointment of some members of his cabinet, as a pragmatist. In order to walk away from the summit with something tangible, he lowers the rhetoric he had fired up a few months before at a similar United Nations session.

Nasheed's story is inspiring, but also daunting and, ultimately, a bit dispiriting. He's the little engine that could, except that, in the end, he couldn't – at least not in the rousing way that director Jon Shenk probably envisioned. As a postscript to Nasheed's successes, we are informed, in a series of brief on-screen updates, that Nasheed was driven from office last month by enemies sympathetic to Gayoom, and that carbon dioxide levels, in the two years since the events in the film concluded, have steadily risen.

Do these developments discount his achievements? Perhaps so, in practical terms, but in a larger sense, it's heartening to see a movie about a politician who isn't, for a change, basking in self-glorification. Nasheed is no saint, and if he had remained in office, maybe, as with so many others, he would have capitulated to politics as usual. But his temper, if not his outcome, is inspiring. Besides, he's still kicking. This story isn't over yet. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for thematic elements, some violent content, and smoking.)

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