By David Templeton
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he goes out in search of a guest with whom to see the butt-kickin' environmentalism movie Fire Down Below.
"You've reached the Press Office of the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.," explains the slightly garbled voice-mail recording I've just been connected to. "Please leave a short but detailed message explaining your request, and we'll get back in contact with you as soon as possible." Beep.
In my experience, "brief message," is routinely a secret code meaning, "Speak fast because you'll be disconnected in 20 seconds whether you're finished or not." What I have to say is not easily confined to such a limit.
"Hi, David Templeton, Talking Pictures," I say in what I hope will be an understood verbal shorthand. "Fire Down Below. Steven Seagal movie. Pretty sure you're aware of it in Washington. Seagal plays a self-described "butt-kickin' EPA agent" who goes undercover as a church-sponsored carpenter to investigate the illegal dumping of toxic wastes in the Appalachian mountains. Kentucky. I'm looking for EPA agents who would identify themselves as belong to the butt-kickin' variety--I assume someone in the agency would answer to that description--to see the movie in question and chat with me about the environmental and social issues that underlie the film's..."
I hang up, crossing my fingers that a butt-kickin' agent of the government will be getting back to me soon. I lean back, and pick up a review of the film, in which the phrase "butt-kickin' EPA agent" is followed by a parenthetical question mark--roughly the same reaction I've gotten with every contact attempt I've made so far. And if not that confused, question-mark response, then it's been outright laughter. Laughter, apparently, at the very notion of a butt-kickin' EPA agent. On the other hand, perhaps they're only laughing that someone is trying to take a Steven Seagal movie seriously.
But why not? Its star might not be able to act, the plot is outrageously cartoonish, and the dialogue is some of the worst in recent display, but the film, allegedly, is based on fact. (?) The screenwriter, Jeb Stuart, spent his college summers rebuilding porches in Appalachia during a highly publicized EPA investigation of companies that paid impoverished farmers to allow toxic chemicals to be dumped on their land. Stuart attempted for years to work those experiences into a film and finally locked into the idea of a ferocious, martial arts-trained EPA enforcer doing battle with the poison-pushing bad guys.
"We do have enforcement officers," affirms a certifiably feisty hazardous-materials specialist who prefers to remain anonymous, when I call the State Department of Health Services, an agency that works in concert with the EPA on occasion. "We have peace officers who wear sidearms, who do undercover work, who have to undergo rifle range training. But they are the nerdiest people. They're nerdier than our engineers are. It's weird. They do go in the field, but mainly, I think, they just try to get disgruntled employees to snitch on their bosses."
Hmmmm. Well, might some of the "nerds" qualify as butt-kickin' nerds?
"We had one fellow visiting our Sacramento office last week," Anonymous replies. "I overheard him on the phone, yelling, 'Are they dumping right now? I'll be right there!' Then he slammed down the phone and ran out of the office. Another guy is pretty much the typical cop type. To him, all the violators are either 'scum bags' or 'Adam Henrys.'"
Adam Henrys (?)
"Assholes," I am informed. "A.H.! Adam Henry."
I see. Well, the surliness of the name-calling is certainly appealing, and I'm sure Steven Seagal might add a certain feral malevolence to the phone-slamming. Unfortunately, these guys don't sound quite what I'm looking for.
The EPA still hasn't returned my calls, and my subsequent attempts with various state branches of the organization have similarly failed to incite a response. I seem to be striking out here.
I e-mail Ross West, a science writer at the University of Oregon in Eugene who just happens to be a film reviewer as well. I'm crossing my fingers that, living in a certified hotspot of the war between the environment and industry, he knows of someone I can talk to.
"Don't know any butt-kickin' EPA agents," West replies. "How about an enviro-activist or vigilante? Good luck."
Enviro-activist? Well ... what the hell. If the EPA can't offer me a butt-kickin' agent, I'll call one of the world's most prominent butt-kickin' environmentalists.
"I don't go to movies," admits David Brower, past president of the Sierra Club, founder of Earth Island Institute, and central figure in John McPhee's groundbreaking book Encounters with the Archdruid. "As for the EPA, I've only really talked to them twice, once in Washington and once here in California. Both times I suggested that--since they needed better quarters--they should just move into the Pentagon and let the armed forces find some other place to shack up.
"In the environmental movement, our job has been to sue the EPA to get them to do what they're supposed to do. That was a few years back, though. They're working pretty hard now. By and large, I'm very happy that we have an EPA."
And how about the aforementioned tendency of people to scoff or laugh at the mention of an EPA agent who cites the Adam Henrys of the world, then kicks the crap out of them. On what does Brower base this trend?
"I don't understand that, I really don't." he chuckles, then adds, "People usually laugh at the environmentalists."
I've just about given up on talking to an actual representative of the EPA when the phone rings. David Schmidt, of the EPA's San Francisco office, has decided to respond, mostly out of curiosity.
"I'm looking for butt-kickin' EPA agents," I wearily explain once more. "Someone like the guy in Fire Down Below. Know anyone like that?"
A long pause, followed by "Without having seen the film in question, it would be difficult to reply. However, it seems safe to say that the movie sounds ... greatly unrealistic." Another pause, then, "Wait a minute." Schmidt returns 30 seconds later.
"Let me read you this," he says, and proceeds to read an EPA press release from July. In the driest possible language, the report describes an investigation--which began with a routine fire department inspection--that resulted in the conviction of two warehouse operators who were found to be illegally storing toxic waste, along with three tons of explosives, a mountain of artillery shells, and over 100 rocket motors and warheads. It took three years to gain a conviction.
"That," Schmidt concludes, "is the most sensational case I've ever come across in my years at the EPA." Not exactly a butt-kickin' scenario, though, is it? "Maybe not," he replies, "but it's about as exciting as it gets around here."
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Web exclusive to the Sept. 17-24, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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