As in publishing, the alarmist polemic has become its own documentary subgenre, and Fuel, Joshua Tickell’s investigation into the oil business, is merely its latest entrant. Tickell’s angle is biofuel, which he believes is the key to sustainable energy and, thus, environmental renewal, political stability, and global health, an argument he makes with rapid-fire graphics (a la Michael Moore) and environmentalist talking heads who bolster his comments about the planet’s dire condition and the pro-green measures required to save it. Tickell’s opinion about the U.S.‘s deleterious overreliance on foreign oil hardly qualifies as radical or unsound, yet his one-sided approach is geared mainly to pat true believers on the back.
Despite a 112-minute runtime overstuffed with statistics, musical montages, and chatty biodiesel proponents, the writer-director doesn’t find a single second to include a dissenting or even skeptical voice, meaning the picture he paints is of an issue largely devoid of debate. Even when addressing the recent ethanol backlash, Tickell moves quickly through seemingly valid questions and ultimately concedes little, too busy is he making sure that the requisite links are made between oil, pollution, 9/11, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, corporate malfeasance, and prohibition, which was supposedly part of a conspiracy to squash potential ethanol-based automobiles.
This slanted barrage also includes brief appearances by Sheryl Crow, Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young, as well as Tickell home movies (he spent the ‘90s driving a van powered by fast-food cooking oil, and his mom’s severe illness is blamed on their toxic Louisiana “cancer alley” home) and shots of the filmmaker momentously walking in slow-motion past the White House. Like the many soundbites that reinforce biodiesel’s claim to be the solution for a better tomorrow, facts and figures are presented as absolute truths rather than as topics of inquiry, thereby undermining the trustworthiness of the doc’s answers and turning the nonfiction film into simply another fervent call-to-arms from one side of the aisle.