A scene of protest from CAPE SPIN: AN AMERICAN POWER STRUGGLE (The Electron Project)

A scene of protest from CAPE SPIN: AN AMERICAN POWER STRUGGLE (The Electron Project)

Directed by John Kirby & Robbie Gemmel
Produced by Daniel Coffin, Gemmel, Libby Handros & Josh Levin
Written by Daniel Coffin
Released by the Electron Project
USA. 87 min. Not rated

Cape Spin! An American Power Struggle entertainingly accomplishes an impossible task: fairly documenting the facts and foibles behind both sides of a hot environmental debate. A local controversy that pulled in national figures (and money, lots of it) is spritely profiled as an informative and cautionary case study of hypocritical NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) vs. corporate investors masquerading as do-gooders.

In 2001, the energy company Cape Wind proposed the U.S.’s first offshore, European-style wind farm that would install over a hundred wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. The generated electricity would supplement the fossil-fueled plants the company operates elsewhere in the country. That region immediately conjures up images of rich summer residents, so it’s no surprise that the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound sprang up right away against the project, but who pulls the political muscle and who bankrolls the Alliance blows away any preconceived notions about environmentalists and grassroots activism.

The Kennedy compound is, of course, among the most well-known properties there, but a montage of forceful pro-alternative energy statements by many liberal Kennedy scions is cynically contradicted by the family’s opposition to the project, including a clip of the patriarch Edward Kennedy arguing alongside Republican Ted Stevens on the Senate floor for prohibitive legislation. Less well-known is that another family enjoys exclusive waterfront views there, the pro-business oil baron Bill Koch, of the conservative, climate change-denying Koch brothers. He donates millions to the Alliance, including funding the articulate and savvy staff.  

Over the next decade of detailed agency reviews and approvals, Cape Wind proves just as aggressive in countering every tack and jibe in tactical battles where, like in any war, the first casualty is truth. The company cannily adjusts the farm’s size and siting and even brings in Appalachians to graphically testify about the urgency for stopping destructive coal mining that fuels the highly polluting plants in Massachusetts.

Seen up close and personal, both sides are the best that money can buy at media manipulation, and the several journalists interviewed, from print and online outlets all along the coast, struggle to separate the facts from their bitterness over being played in interpreting them. Man-on-the-street interviews demonstrate that the noisy debates have left locals mired in misinformation. For viewers, button-like tags of a windmill (with or without a red line) identify those with formal positions, while each step in the saga is accompanied on the amusing soundtrack by songs that satirically undercut their earnestness.

As a former environmental planner, I particularly appreciated how directors John Kirby and Robbie Gemmel use the public hearings process to capture the full breadth of those with a point of view, especially the more working-class fishermen and boat operators, accompanied by footage of them at work (along with evidence to contradict them, as is done with everyone in the film). The cast of characters gets even any more colorful in late 2009 when Native American tribes suddenly raise religious and historic objections to interference with their views. Even as one wonders where else in the country has a Koch brother been so solicitous of Native American traditions, Cape Wind just as conveniently lines up its own questionable tribal consultant. The resulting ratcheted up Federal oversight ironically ends up benefitting the project.

Just when you’re either confused or made cynical by everyone’s hypocrisy, the directors usefully offer what they call “a third way” alternative for wind power (which is the approach of their overall educational sponsor, the Electron Project), that diverges both from rich folks’ NIMBY and the corporate ownership of natural resources. They show smaller scale windmill projects elsewhere in the Cape Cod area, including a farmers’ cooperative, a municipal power company, and a maritime college, that are already successfully generating electricity, or are far along in planning. This optimism lifts the film’s critical view to an unusually thoughtful perspective that can also be applied to other environmental issues and documentaries that only advocate one side.