'Wetlands' More Promotion than Documentary
by James Bates
Los Angeles Times
April 24, 1999 -- p. F-11

The opening moments of "The Last Stand: The Struggle for Ballona Wetlands" tell you everything you need to know about where it's headed when you hear Joni Mitchell singing, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," from her song "Big Yellow Taxi."

This is billed as a documentary, but it's really an infomercial. The transparent purpose of "The Last Stand" is to promote the position of opponents of the Playa Vista development where DreamWorks SKG (director Steven Spielberg, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and mogul David Geffen) plans to build a studio.

Unfortunately, it's also largely about promoting themselves. And that's why it ultimately fails.

Which is too bad. The frustration of the piece is that when it does touch on an important issue that television might handle creatively--land use issues surrounding such a large development, whether really wealthy people should get tax breaks for developing projects or whether restoring a wetlands is better or worse than simply leaving it alone--"The Last Stand" deteriorates into a narcissistic home movie about marches and protests. You get the feeling you're in the living room of Woodstock veterans watching videos from their summer vacation of protest.

See the lady in the frog outfit talk about her anti-DreamWorks performance art. See actor Martin Sheen help put a chain around a door belonging to the developer. See a guy's microphone get shut off at a city council meeting.

What attempts there are to get across any other side of the story, particularly the job-creation issue championed by local unions, are patronizing. Those who support that side are made either to look sleazy or misguided.

There's also a hit-and-run aspect to "The Last Stand" that makes one feel as if one main purpose is to settle scores--notably with rival environmental groups that support Playa Vista and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who Playa opponents believe are sellouts. There is only the most feeble of attempts to be fair in telling other sides of the story.

The final chapter of the documentary, narrated by actor Ed Asner, is titled "Solutions." Here's one: Next time let PBS' "Frontline" handle the job.

James Bates covers entertainment for The Times Business section and has covered DreamWorks' efforts to build a studio.