The National Weather Service indicates that the odds of any one individual being struck by lightning are around 1 in 400,000. Unsurprisingly, those who wind up pinned to the ground for a millisecond with 40 kiloamps of raw electricity jolting through their veins -- and live to tell about it -- often feel privy to some sort of divine appointment or deliverance. That's the fascinating conceit of Jennifer Baichwal's documentary Act of God. Working in tandem with her husband, producer-cinematographer Nick de Pencier, Baichwal travels around the world interviewing survivors of lightning bolts and shell-shocked firsthand witnesses to lightning-related deaths.
Baichwal and de Pencier approach the material as a series of mini biographical profiles that present variations on how individuals respond to this rare circumstance. And that represents an intelligent structural decision. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' choice of subjects partially leaves something to be desired. Most compelling are the gifted novelist Paul Auster (who witnessed the lightning-struck death of a childhood friend and narrates this terrifying story from a written account, with magnetic intensity), and the playwright James O'Reilly (credited as the film's co-scribe), who survived a group lightning strike as a teenager that killed his buddy in an unusually grotesque manner. Both interviewees come across as relatively normal and straightlaced individuals still haunted by the possibility that they themselves might easily have been killed, and by the profound, perhaps unanswerable question of what survival means on a cosmic level. But several other participants are much harder to relate to given their degrees of metaphysical entrenchment, such as a tribe of Yoruba worshippers who praise the lightning god Shango, or the irritating Dannion Brinkley, allegedly a former CIA hitman, whose meeting with a lightning bolt propelled him into a second-act career as a flighty New Age author-counselor. Brinkley's bizarre description of a near-death experience with extraterrestrial beings that supposedly followed a lightning strike robs the film of credibility that it desperately needs, and feels so far removed from the remainder of the material that it virtually demands its own film.
Truthfully, Baichwal and de Pencier more closely resemble film essayists than documentarists. They deliberately avoid the use of a narrator and intertitles onscreen, which renders the narrative somewhat confusing. It isn't a problem in the wondrous segments featuring Auster and O'Reilly -- in fact, narration therein would feel excessive -- but the film desperately needs an explanatory voice-over in other segments, mainly to clarify muddled details surrounding some of the more spiritually inclined interviewees and to undergird the already fragile narrative structure. A narrator would particularly help in the case of participant-cum-soundtrack musician Fred Frith. An improvisational jazz guitarist, Frith has no ostensible experience with lightning bolts, but participates in an unusual on-camera experiment, playing his guitar in a laboratory with electrodes attached to his head. Baichwal and de Pencier sketch in only the faintest hints about the thematic connection between the random electrical currents that circulate through Frith's brain during musical improvisation and the random probability of a lightning strike, so that we're still questioning Frith's relevance to the film when the end credits roll.
As it stands, the documentary could seriously benefit from the elimination or reduction of its more extreme metaphysical interviewees and the addition of some cold, hard scientific details about lightning strikes per se -- the probabilities of being struck and surviving a bolt, the physical impact on the survivor's body, the meteorological causes of lightning, et cetera -- thus enabling Baichwal and de Pencier to neatly contrast the scientific with the metaphysical.
For all of its flaws, what Act of God does possess is a palpable sense of visual and aural majesty. One can think of few documentary images as sensorially overwhelming as that of a benign cumulus cloud that gradually, in the time-lapse opening sequence, takes on sinister shape and form as it prepares to cast bolts of electricity onto the earth below; in fact, it attains almost mythological dimension. Likewise, Baichwal and de Pencier interpolate mesmerizing cutaways to still photographs of lightning storms shot by a photographer interviewee. Those images hold the audience rapt, and when combined with the Auster and O'Reilly segments, the film occasionally achieves an undeniable level of emotional power. Overall, though, it feels too diffuse and meandering to be termed a complete success.
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- Released: 2009
- Review: The National Weather Service indicates that the odds of any one individual being struck by lightning are around 1 in 400,000. Unsurprisingly, those who wind up pinned to the ground for a millisecond with 40 kiloamps of raw electricity jolting through their… (more)