An Inconvenient Truth

*** (A must see)

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

An Inconvenient Truth is really two movies: a sobering lecture about a globe that’s getting warmer and a profile of a leader whose career has always been hindered by his apparent lack of warmth. The importance of the first movie dwarfs that of the second, but the filmmakers seem to think nothing sells tickets like a hero, and on this issue at least Al Gore fills the bill. Environmentalist Laurie David and producer Lawrence Bender launched the project in 2004 after seeing Gore deliver a multimedia presentation on global warming, a talk he’d presented a thousand times since 1989. This same talk serves as the movie’s centerpiece: speaking to a small audience in a black-box theater with a giant screen behind him, Gore presents a series of photos, charts, and graphs that suggests the world’s governments have little more than a decade to avert a planetary disaster.

The film intercuts this gripping scientific argument with episodes from Gore’s life that explain his commitment to the issue: in college he learned that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere trap infrared rays, as a young congressman he tried to call attention to the growing threat, he nearly lost his young son in a traffic accident and realized how precarious life could be, the death from lung cancer of his older sister, a heavy smoker, taught him that self-destructive behavior has to be changed as early as possible. These last two stories were retailed during his campaigns for national office, one reason there’s speculation that An Inconvenient Truth is the opening salvo of another White House run. Yet zooming in on Al Gore as a person seems to work against the movie’s greatest strength–his ability to frame the problem in a gigantic wide-angle shot.

Despite Gore’s reputation as a bore, his lecture is hugely dramatic. He opens with the first photograph of the earth from space, captured in 1968 by the Apollo 8 astronauts, and recalls the pioneering work of his Harvard teacher Roger Revelle in tracking the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A series of easily comprehended graphs shows how closely the rising level corresponds with the climbing temperature of the planet. Before-and-after photos of the world’s glaciers illustrate how fast they’re shrinking, and aerial views of the arctic ice sheet show pools of meltwater creating fissures in it. In the most hair-raising sequence, computer images show how the breakup of a large ice mass in the northern hemisphere would submerge large areas of Manhattan, San Francisco, Beijing, Calcutta, and the Netherlands. As Gore points out, the site of the World Trade Center Memorial would be underwater.

An Inconvenient Truth may not save the planet, but it’s already gone a long way toward rescuing Gore’s public profile. In Fahrenheit 9/11, which premiered at Cannes in 2004, Gore was portrayed as the ultimate loser, silencing members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the floor of the Senate when they tried to protest the Supreme Court ruling that robbed him of the presidency. But when An Inconvenient Truth premiered at this year’s festival Gore was treated like a superstar, eclipsing Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis. The movie captures Gore’s more attractive personal qualities–his intelligence, his prescience, his bone-dry sense of humor–better than anything his handlers managed to conjure up in 2000. Quoting Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair, he comes across like a country lawyer laying out an airtight case, and with his genial command of the subject, he can’t help but look good compared to the current shrugger in chief.

With thudding predictability, media response to the movie has focused on Gore’s presidential prospects, as liberals sickened by Hillary Clinton’s endless positioning cast about for another viable candidate. People’s preconceptions about Gore are bound to limit the movie’s audience. Yet unlike the modern campaign biography, which presumes to lay bare the candidate’s character through some Oprah-friendly personal crisis (Clinton’s abusive stepfather, Bush’s heavy drinking, Kerry’s heroics in Vietnam), An Inconvenient Truth reveals Gore’s substance. For three decades he’s been calling attention to the environment, enduring epithets like “Ozone Man” and snotty references to his “earth tones in the balance.” Now that Hurricane Katrina has given us a taste of what we can expect, his doggedness on the issue seems less stubborn than heroic; for once, character is defined by public service.

Consequence is the movie’s theme, illustrated most shockingly by its images of a flooded Manhattan and San Francisco. As part of his lecture Gore quotes Churchill’s famous prognosis on the spread of fascism across Europe in the 30s: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequence.” Even the story of Nancy Gore’s lung cancer comes with a lesson in personal responsibility, as Al recalls how his Tennessee family finally “connected the dots” and quit growing tobacco: “Whatever explanations had seemed to make sense in the past just didn’t cut it anymore.” This focus on sacrifice also sets the movie apart from a standard campaign bio: no one ever got elected president by telling Americans to reduce their driving, ditch their giant cars, and turn down their thermostats. To its credit, An Inconvenient Truth has the nerve to call for everybody to be inconvenienced.

More than one person has asked me if the movie is deeply depressing, and there’s nothing cheery about the petroleum industry spreading disinformation or the Bush administration doctoring scientific data, both of which Gore documents in his lecture. But as he points out, the technical solutions to global warming are already well established; the only thing lacking is political will. Again he uses the fight against fascism as his model, citing the unprecedented military mobilization that followed Pearl Harbor and concluding, “In America, political will is a renewable resource.” In that respect Gore seems to be way ahead of the filmmakers: their half of the movie valorizes him, laboring under the old but still powerful delusion that history is made by great men, while his half focuses on educating people. After 30 years in politics, watching his own stock rise and fall, Gore seems to have learned that only the public can lead.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Lee.