Toxic Hot Seat is, first and foremost, an excellent work of journalism. It’s also an “issue documentary,” a genre that these days has a bit of a bad reputation among some critics. Yet, as this new film from Kirby Walker and James Redford (The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia) proves so articulately, the “film with a cause” isn’t necessarily a discrete concept in the first place. This exposé of the chemical industry and the toxicity and usefulness of flame retardant chemicals plays out more like a political thriller than a plea for your support or your money. Its final moments, driving home the need for reform, are necessitated not by the ethical emphasis of the film but by the importance of narrative closure.
Much of the film’s success comes from the wise decision to tell two stories simultaneously. Walker and Redford open with a fire house in San Francisco, where retired firefighter Tony Stefani is trying to raise awareness of the shocking prevalence of cancer among his colleagues. Women firefighters in particular contract breast cancer at a rate much higher than the national average. While they don’t initially have proof, it becomes clear that the chemicals released into the air during fires are at fault. The losses sustained by this community and their struggle to explain them pack the biggest emotional punch of Toxic Hot Seat, an arc that for much of the film is kept apart from the parallel developments in the scientific and political fight.
This second narrative begins with the Chicago Tribune, whose “Playing with Fire” series first broke open this whole story. Reporters Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne detail their pursuit of information about the safety and efficacy of flame retardant chemicals and how the industry has been protecting itself since these chemicals were first discovered to be toxic back in the 1970s. There aren’t any secret meetings with whistleblowers in parking garages, but there are plenty of obscure documents, some of them in Swedish. The Tribune talked to everyone they could, including Dr. Vytenis Babrouskas, whose original study is the most important work used to defend the use of flame retardants in furniture. Now he says that it has been misinterpreted and misused, and that California’s standard that requires these chemicals in furniture, TB117, was a mistake. The most commonly used flame retardants not only fill our bodies with toxins, but they don’t really work.
It’s complicated, but this is only the beginning of the story. Walker and Redford take the conversation to scientists, like Arlene Blum at Berkeley. They follow political fights in California and Maine, where efforts are underway to ban these chemicals outright. They look at the arrival of Citizens for Fire Safety, and its eventual exposure as a fake, astroturf organization set up by the chemical industry. By the end of the film there is a full cast of characters, representing every important aspect of the story. Yet Toxic Hot Seat never gets lost, never finds itself wandering away from the most important elements of its central narrative.
Walker and Redford have crafted a narrative of coalition building. The coming together of activists, scientists, politicians, and victims is mimicked by the structure of the film. Balance between these characters is the key ingredient, the knowledge of how and when to introduce each figure. The climax comes when the political process gathers them into the same physical space, from San Francisco’s Stefani and his colleagues in the fire department to the heroic Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Hannah Pingree. More than a condemnation of corporate abuses, Toxic Hot Seat is a compelling look into the way disparate people can unite to solve a shared problem.
And, like many good political films, Toxic Hot Seat somehow manages to both restore and destroy your faith in the American system. The details of the successes and setbacks of the movement to ban flame retardants is best left to the film itself, of course. What can and should be said is that we need documentaries like this one, well-organized examples of solid journalism. As the world becomes increasingly more complicated, with the layers of political manipulation and corporate intervention, clarity of communication is crucial. Walker and Redford have made one of the clearest, most effectively informative issue documentaries of the year.
Toxic Hot Seat screens at DOC NYC tonight and will premiere on HBO on November 25th.