The Yes Men Are Revolting is a slapstick comedy about the end of the world. If the humor comes as a surprise, that’s because the climate change documentary genre is generally perceived as pretty sober. An Inconvenient Truth is still the most famous, after all. Yet the Yes Men have been a dependable source of political comedy since the turn of the millennium, and this newest example is no exception. It begins with the return of their absurd “survivaballs,” the activists poised to clumsily float across the East River to protest at the United Nations.
The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, longtime activists who use impersonation as a satirical weapon. This is the third film in a series on their work, after 2003’s The Yes Men and 2009’s The Yes Men Fix the World. They also directed this newest installment, alongside filmmaker Laura Nix, who appeared in the first film and produced the second. The Yes Men Are Revolting is mostly an episodic compilation of the last six years of planning and action. Beyond the survivaballs it includes impostor officials at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a Russian bear costume in Amsterdam and an leaky oil rig fountain at a mock Shell event in Seattle.
It’s frequently hilarious. The Copenhagen action, produced with the help of activists from Canada and Uganda, features the impersonation of government representatives to announce a Canadian commitment to fixing the disastrous effects of climate change on East Africa. It’s presented as an apology for the damage done by the massive extraction of oil from the Alberta tar sands, and therefore attracts a firestorm of media attention. The real Canadian government is forced to correct this information, appearing ridiculous and irresponsible on the global stage. The phone calls subsequently received by the Yes Men and their collaborators are a comic high point.
This particular action also shows how these stunts have grown to include a wider and more international group of collaborators. The Yes Men visit three continents and travel across the United States and the United Kingdom to work, bringing younger and more diverse people into their projects. Elaborate productions make their successes even more exciting to watch, but also lend a surreal charm to their failures. An action that doesn’t work out can send the Yes Men into a downward spiral, but it’s hard to deny how fascinating it is to watch a bunch of costumed agitators ineffectively performing before a confused audience.
As this happens, the directors quickly turn to disappointment and recovery as a major theme. Nix follows Bonanno as his family moves from Brooklyn to Scotland and then back to New York, trying to find the best place to raise his three children. Bichlbaum struggles to respond, his less domestic Manhattan life and his more fervent devotion to their work leading him to frustration. The film also invites both men to return to their childhood homes. They introduce their radical upbringings and the political perspectives of their parents, Jewish immigrants shaped by the Holocaust and the Cold War. The Yes Men Are Revolting draws a long line from World War II through the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s, when the Yes Men met and began working together, into the Occupy Wall Street movement and the contemporary American left.
Like the many and varied actions of the Yes Men, this broad and busy approach has some hits and some misses. The film meanders, and the diversions into the family lives of the activists aren’t always relevant to the character or purpose of their work. The line between telling a good story and simply telling all there is to tell is blurry, and The Yes Men Are Revolting finds itself on the wrong side of that line a little too often. Still, Nix and the Yes Men have mostly brought a wry joy to the doom-filled genre of climate change nonfiction, and for that they should be commended.
The Yes Men Are Revolting opens on June 12th in select cities, beginning with a screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City.