In 1971, an 11-year-old Matthew Modine returned to his family home in Orem, Utah, to find his dog missing. This wasn't entirely unexpected; Modine had moved away from Orem a few years earlier, leaving his dog buried in the home's backyard. But the grave was nowhere to be found.

Neither was the backyard.

Modine also couldn't find the house. Nor could he find the large apple orchard that had bordered the drive-in movie theater -- the one his father had managed when they had lived in Orem. The drive-in was gone, too. In fact, the only thing Modine found when he stepped off the bus from Midvale -- where his family now lived -- was a new Grand Central supermarket fronted by an acres-wide asphalt parking lot.

"It was like the Joni Mitchell song," Modine remembers. "Don't it always seem to go..."
Some four decades later, the 52-year-old actor and filmmaker remembers that loss as the moment of his environmental awakening.

"It's a reflection of horrible, unsustainable growth," says Modine of the developmental sprawl that devoured Orem and countless other towns across the country. "When do we look at it like a doctor, and say that if we don't change our behavior, this growth is going to kill us?"

Modine's early roles contained a hint of this socially conscious streak -- albeit applied toward a different cause. Early in his Hollywood career, after moving to New York to study under august acting teacher Stella Adler, he starred in a string of award-winning films about the Vietnam War: 1983's Streamers, 1984's Birdy and 1987's Full Metal Jacket.

These were deeply critical accounts of war. But not all films of the era were so discerning -- which is why Modine famously turned down the role eventually given to Tom Cruise in Top Gun, one of the more conspicuously rah-rah war flicks of the late Cold War. He says he refused the part after traveling to East Germany, where he encountered a number of Russian soldiers. "They were just kids," he remembers.

"The problem was not people, the problem was politics between our two countries," Modine continues. "People are people. Governments and religions are quite another story. It's wonderful to imagine life without either."

In fact, Modine wants to take on both. But it's not just politics and religions that irk him; he's also got a bone to pick with poverty, inequality, violence, nuclear proliferation -- all the toxic byproducts of Western civilization. Including, of course, the environmental degradation he saw when visiting Orem as a kid.



Tricky though it might be to tie all these issues together into a coherent whole, Modine's pulled it off -- and in a 15-minute film, no less. Jesus Was a Commie, which Modine wrote and co-directed with filmmaker Terence Ziegler, has been at a selection of film festivals around the world since its release this past November. (The video will be available through iTunes at the beginning of the year, along with several of Modine's other directorial works -- including I Think I Thought and To Kill an American, which Modine says "should be seen as one film" together with Jesus Was a Commie. "All three illuminate areas in our minds where we've turned off the lights.") Provocative title notwithstanding, Jesus Was a Commie is hard to argue with. Adapted from an essay Modine wrote for Finch's Quarterly Review, a highbrow zine that boasts contributors like Kevin Spacey and John Malkovich, the film is an elaborate montage of religious, historical and scientific imagery, along with footage of Modine -- playing an everyman named "John Doe" -- exploring the streets of New York. As the images flash by, Modine's voice guides the viewer through an intricate but compelling argument: That global harmony and personal responsibility are more important than ever in an age when the world can be snuffed out with the push of a button.

Fairly uncontroversial stuff -- but that hasn't kept Modine from receiving his fair share of hate mail. "I shouldn't be surprised when I am attacked for giving it that title," says Modine. "The disappointing thing is when people identifying themselves as Christian are threatening me for the title alone. They haven't seen the film and yet they have judged it."

Raised in a heavily Mormon state, Modine knows a thing or two about the devout, and contrary to what one might think after seeing Jesus Was a Commie, he also doesn't think of himself as anticapitalist. Instead, he says, "I am pro-integrity. I am pro-responsibility. If my actions cause the suffering of another species or fellow human being, I want to do what is in my power to change that behavior."

He may have the heart of an altruist, but Modine's still a professional actor -- which means playing the bad guy when the part requires it. He was recently tapped for The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman movie. Online rumor has it that Modine's character is a villainous politician. Modine only has one thing to say about that: "Don't believe what you read on the Internet!"

And what about all those other evils in the world: suburban sprawl, nukes and the like? If he could make one sweeping change to address it all, says Modine, he would strike the problem at its root.

"I would ban any frivolous use of gasoline," he says. "I would also enforce gas rationing on all citizens. Encouraging carpooling and in- vestment in the infrastructure of our country with light rail, trains and trolley systems. And of course bike lanes. Encouraging young people to ride bikes to school instead of buses and cars."

It won't bring his dog back -- or the house in Orem -- but that kind of personal responsibility just might be a start.