Review: A Couple’s Love Story Drives World-Changing Conservation Efforts in Moving DocumentaryWild Life

The newest documentary film from Academy Award-winning directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo, Meru), Wild Life is a bit of a departure for the pair: There are very few moments where the subjects of their film might die on camera during an extreme sporting event. Instead, this work focuses on former Patagonia CEO and president and co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, Kristine Tompkins. The filmmakers cover decades of Tompkins’ efforts to get millions of acres of Chilean and Argentine land turned into national parks and donated back to the national governments of these countries to continue the upkeep of the lands, all in the name of conservation on a scale never seen before.

The project was originally spearheaded by Kristine and her late husband and world-famous outdoorsman Doug Tompkins, who left behind the world of successful outdoor clothing sales—Patagonia, The North Face and Esprit—to concentrate his efforts on buying available lands from countries in need of cash, restoring the grounds, turning them into parks, and donating them back to the countries. The filmmakers also traverse the highs and lows of Kris and Doug’s marriage, as well as their close friendship with Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, who provides some genuinely heartfelt observations about the couple’s personal lives and how the Tompkinses convinced him to help the environmental eeffort in ways he couldn’t understand without just making it happen.

The complicated and labyrinthian politics that have to be navigated to make these land deals happen are fascinating and are frequently tied to how liberal or conservative the ruling party is in each country. But Doug, and later Kris, are so determined to make this work that it typically does in the end. Call it privilege or stubbornness, but the Tompkinses were the perfect people to push these deals through. Loaded with archival footage and stunning cinematography, as well as new interviews with some of the major players from all of the represented countries, Wild Life gets unexpectedly emotional at times, especially in moments when we remember that the basis for all that transpires is a love story in which one of the couple is no longer with us. Kris’s main objective in life is to finish the work she and her husband began, and any time there’s a setback or any other obstacle that threatens this land deal from going through, she feels like she’s failed to care enough about the outcome. This is a different type of high-wire act for the filmmakers, but one that is no less harrowing.

The film is now playing in theaters, with a broadcast debut on the National Geographic cable network on May 25, and its Disney+ premiere the following day.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.