The Greatest Good

Movie Information

Genre: Documentary
Director: Steve Dunsky, Dave Steinke
Starring: Char Miller, Edgar Brannon, Peter Pinchot
Rated: NR

What would you say is the “Greatest Good?” According to the official site of this Forest Service-produced centennial documentary on the history and mission of the Service, “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” The site goes on further to explain, “This statement is from a letter signed by Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson on February 1, 1905. It is addressed to ‘The Forester,’ or the man in charge of newly created Forest Service. Gifford Pinchot was that ‘Forester’ and it is generally assumed that he wrote the letter.”

He wrote the letter to himself, they posit, as a mission statement — setting out the goals of the newly formed Forest Service. The film follows the history of the Service and its various attempts to adhere to that “greatest good” philosophy, which, in Pinchot’s mind was a utilitarian concept that didn’t seek to merely preserve the forests, but to utilize them.

… which sounds at first almost contradictory. But that’s partly because of the gradual broadening over the years of the meaning of “utilitarian” – which has depended to a great degree on who was president at the time — to encompass just about anything. Considering that Pinchot and the president who backed him, Teddy Roosevelt, were progressive conservationists, the broader definition wasn’t what they had in mind.

Entertaining and informative, The Greatest Good not only fills in the history of the Forest Service, it puts the question of whether or not the idea of the “Greatest Good” is still a valid one. To try to reach a conclusion, the filmmakers put the question to more than 70 knowledgeable interviewees. Does the film actually arrive at a conclusion? Not really, but it offers a good deal of food for thought as it presents both sides of the issue.

Fleshed out with marvelous archival footage — including Smokey the Bear and Lassie, along with major players of the Service over the years — The Greatest Good presents a fascinating, if a bit long, look at a subject that has bearing on us all.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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