The story’s primary conflict is a clash of values around a natural resource. To the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the river is a source of life and abundant salmon, central to the tribe's culture and economy. New settlers see the river as a source of electric power, essential for industry. The film introduces an ensemble cast of characters, creating a nuanced portrait of a community and its dilemma regarding a shared resource.
Structurally, the story spans a century and moves chronologically after a teaser scene. Two historical figures with rich written accounts set the stage. Thomas Aldwell, builder of the dams, embodies manifest destny. Aldwell’s autobiography, "Conquering the Last Frontier", describes his secret plan for developing hydropower, bringing "peace, power and civilization" to the Olympic Peninsula. Aldwell's contemporary foil is Grant Humes, a nature lover who claims a nearby homestead. Brought to life by the voice of Tom Skerritt, Humes describes the region's beauty and abundance, and his ambivalence about rapid development.
The first dam, constructed in 1910, broke existing environmental laws requiring fish passage. It decimated a legendary salmon run and inundated land sacred to the tribe. Tribal members were the first to protest the dams; eventually they found common cause with the nascent environmental movement. Together they launched a debate at the local and federal level.
Key contemporary characters include Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and Ben Charles, a spiritual leader and relentless optimist. Ben Charles frames the fight for the river with a native legend about the “Sleeping Giants”, caretakers of land, temporarily lulled to sleep by tricksters.
In a deeply divided community, industrialist Orville Campbell is an intriguing character. A lifetime employee of the paper and hydro industry, Campbell’s views evolve markedly in the film. His reflections on the importance and arrogance of industry help reveal the transformation in the story. Ultimately the community reaches consensus; combined with an act of Congress, the world’s largest dam demolition begins.
Co-Directors Gussman and Plumb live on the Olympic Peninsula. The film reflects their connection to place, offering a spectacular and intimate view of a wild and remote region, with respect for the diverse communities that call it home. The film’s ensemble cast is tied together by a river; the river itself has a voice as narrator, weaving the story together with a wise, resilient and powerful presence.
This is a film about possibility, for people and the planet. In the words of Senator Bill Bradley onscreen: "Here, in the success of our collective action on the Elwha, is a template for success on climate change... and hundreds of other issues. It will be the great gift of the Elwha: Hope."