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Making a bid for a blockbuster

How far would you go to defend your beliefs? Would you consider civil disobedience, legal activism and possible jail time?

In Tim DeChristopher’s case, he chose all of the above.  Bidder 70 is a heartfelt, if one-sided, film that look at the repercussions of one man’s courageous act.

Bidder #70 was the designation given to DeChristopher at a land auction in December 2008, where the Bush Administration, in its last throes of authority, was selling off the drilling rights to vast tracts of Utah wilderness. An ardent nature-lover, DeChristopher placed bids and won nearly every lot offered – 22,000 acres worth $1.7 million – with no intention of paying. Having thrown the auction into chaos, he was charged with federal felonies that could potentially put him behind bars for a decade.

His simple act of civil disobedience, done in the spur of the moment, was the spark that ignited a larger conversation about climate change. DeChristopher, a University of Utah student, took advantage of the years of delays for his trial to become a full-time environmental activist, founding the group Peaceful Uprising.

Apart from making papier-mâché effigies of oil execs for public mock trials, Peaceful Uprising’s greatest accomplishment was the congressional campaign of Claudia Wright, a grassroots activist in opposition to Congressman Jim Matheson, portrayed by the film as a shill for the energy industry. Wright’s unsuccessful campaign shook DeChristopher’s confidence in his movement, which is one of the few times we see him succumb to doubt. It’s a startlingly candid moment from a man whose passion for climate protection seems to know no bounds.

Where the film falters somewhat is its one-sided depiction of the fossil fuel debate. While there is no doubt that the use of fossil fuels is causing irreversible climate change, the film – and DeChristopher himself – seem to take issue more with the destruction of natural ecosystems, which is somewhat hard to sympathize with as the camera pans across miles of uninhabited, barren desert. The film’s message of “stop using fossil fuels, now!” without any sort of discussion of alternative energy sources has the unfortunate effect of making DeChristopher and Peaceful Uprising seem like a group of well-intentioned but ineffectual hippies.

While Bidder 70 has a tendency to revel in feel-good montages of peace activists dancing in circles to folk music, and occasionally veers into hyperbolic sanctification of DeChristopher – such as painting him as the successor to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. – it ultimately hits its mark in showing the personal determination and turmoil inside DeChristopher’s mind. We see his unrepentance as he fearlessly defends the rugged Utah landscape he loves so much, and his stoicism in the face of possible jail time as his trial verdict approaches.

Regardless of what the jury has decided, DeChristopher has won the moral victory.

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