“Power” is not the first and probably not the last, version of the James Bay Cree story to be told. But it may be the best told thus far. Speaking of course as a completely biased viewer. With its fly on the wall, warts and all perspective, the film delves into the inner workings of the battle to save, and to a much lesser extent to destroy, a river. Six years in the making the film follows Grand Chief Coon Come and his team take on the giants on their terms.

The film plays like it sprang from an inspired Hollywood screenwriter’s imagination. There is the fallible hero and his ever faithful sidekick, the villains, the supporting cast, the bit players, the twist in the plot and the happy ending. In its essence it is the Cowboys and Indians story with a subplot of the growing pains of a Nation. To the person who doesn’t already know how it ends, it will have you on the edge of your seat. But the chances of the average viewer not knowing the story are very slim.

The film begins in a meeting of Cree leaders discussing strategy for bringing Great Whale to a halt. And scenes of the
people of Whapmagoostui driving Hydro Quebec representatives from their community. We see the Odeyak being built by Cree and Inuit craftsmen and the start of its journey by dogsled to Manhattan.

The feeling that we are watching a drama is reinforced by the lack of narration and the filmmaker’s use of a map and a red line to trace the route of the Odeyak. Very much like those early war movies. Magnus Isaacson’s experience and mastery comes through loud and clear with some subtleties to keep even the most jaded James Bay watcher such as yours truly on his seat. (You will know what I mean.)

Robert Kennedy Jr. and his group of environmentalists arrive in Whapmagoostui and are taken on a whitewater rafting tour. They experience for themselves the river’s immense power as their rubber raft capsizes in white water. The breathtaking scenes shot on the endangered river are the reason film was invented.

We watch as Cree, as well as anti-Cree, rhetoric builds to a crescendo as the half canoe half kayak nears its destination. Lise Bacon, Parizeau and Richard Le Hir attack the campaign in soundbites on the evening news. American Cree supporters judge Hydro Quebec’s handling of the public relations battle as dunce-like.

One of the most dramatic scenes is of a late night conference call between the Grand Council and Whapmagoostui. They are discussing whether Matthew should sign another agreement with HQ regarding more additions to La Grande. Mukash is worried how it would look to their supporters and opponents. Matthew informs the GW that he will go ahead and sign for the 50 million and with his final “Egoodeh aa?” we hear a click and then the dial tone. Another dramatic scene takes place in a conference room where O’Reilly’s fate hangs in the balance. Some of the chiefs believe he is not working for the interest of the nation. We all know what happened later.

The film shifts to the halls of power in the states where Matthew has to answer questions on why the Cree would sign agreements with HQ while they are also fighting for Great Whale. He gives them the reason that the La Grande River is already dead.

Kennedy and tense Cree leaders watch the debate on the New York and Quebec contract on TV in a hotel room. Matthew does an impromptu jig on a stage somewhere in the states after New York cancels the contract. Bourassa brushes off the cancellations as “not a defeat, but a setback.”

The filmmakers use of light is so subtle you don’t really notice it until the film’s final frames when Matthew and Cree drummers are shot after the victory by warm evening light.

Power, the feelgood movie of the fall.