Whether you've visited the Grand Canyon in the last 40 years, or just like the idea that it's there, you've got David Brower to thank. Today, we take national parks and preserved wilderness for granted, but Kelly Duane's documentary about Brower and his tenure as executive director of the Sierra Club depicts his struggle to convince both the government and its people that our nation's great natural beauty should be protected.
Through contemporary interviews and archival material, Monumental traces several concurrent threads: how the Sierra Club, founded in 1892 as a West Coast hiking group, became a national political force; how one man's fervor could enact tremendous change; and how the rest of America came to embrace the concept of wilderness for its own sake.
All of this is intercut with the film's greatest visuals ... color film that Brower shot during his outdoor expeditions from the late 1930s through the early '70s, including rare footage of the sublime, otherworldly Glen Canyon, now submerged behind a dam. Brower had a fine eye for composition and light, and this gorgeous footage is all the more remarkable for its amateur origins. (Note, too, in these clips, that recreating in remote areas previously required no specialized clothing or gear.) But Brower understood the persuasive power of images, and used them to sway Congress, presidents and the American public, depicting not just what should be preserved, but also what had already been lost.
As inspirational as Brower's story is, Monumental still gives pause. The film illustrates how tenuous the creation and maintenance of wilderness and parkland was; without Brower's fight, the Grand freakin' Canyon would have been the site of two dams by the mid-1960s. Oddly, the film chooses not to mention how today such lands are under threat, both from a neglectful and bottom-line-oriented administration and our own changing relationship with nature, such as the increasing demand for access, motorized recreation and modern amenities.
History is filled with individuals to whom we owe much and whose efforts may be lost to the accounts of flashier lives. Monumental serves two important roles: to remind us of our continuing obligations to the ethical stewardship of the land, and to herald the man who helped bring us to that understanding.