It’s the movie that brought Al Gore back into the spotlight and made environmentalism sexy again. Day Six of Oscar Winners Week.
Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 2006, 97 min
Almost from its release, An Inconvenient Truth has accumulated so much baggage around itself that it seems impossible to have any kind of discussion about the film without it leading to topics that really have nothing to do with it. Should it have won an Oscar? Did Al Gore deserve a Nobel Peace Prize? Is it wrong that it used a clip from The Day After Tomorrow? Is Global Warming real? It’s always heartens me when a documentary is able to capture the public’s attention, but the docs that capture the public’s attention usually end up being discussed for the issues they tackle, rather than their artistic merits. And the artistic merits are all I care about.*
Al Gore has worked with environmental issues for decades, and turned his attention to them full-time after he won the 2000 election. He put together his now-famous slideshow as a crash course in understanding global warming, and went on tour with it. By his own estimate, he’s shown it over a thousand times at all manner of venues and events. This documentary brings his show to you.
What surprised me is that this movie is just as much about Gore as it is about his mission. Intercut with the slideshow are scenes of Gore reflecting on his life. He talks about the events that have shaped and influenced him, from the near-death of his son in a car accident to, of course, the 2000 Presidential race. This isn’t some attempt to mythologize the man. Rather, it reveals why he believes what he believes and does what he does. It humanizes him, and provides a personal link to the worldwide issue he’s talking about. While I doubt anyone will ever watch An Inconvenient Truth to learn more about Gore, it still works well as a small character piece.
But global warming is, of course, still the main character of the film. Gore goes over the causes and effects of the phenomenon in a way that is clear and understandable, but doesn’t ever talk down to the audience. As a work of persuasion, the film is airtight. Evidence and examples are always on hand to back up every claim, and responses are preemptively given to the popular counter-arguments. I don’t know if the doc will sway any hardcore “skeptics” of global warming, but those people aren’t given to listening to reason anyway. But the movie should be quite useful in giving a basic introduction to people who don’t understand the issue.
It’s always saddened me how important problems become politicized when activism threatens business concerns. The fight against global warming has probably suffered from this more than any other modern issue. Gore has to devote just as much time to refuting the lies and misconceptions that have been spread around climate change as he does to explaining the problem itself. However, he stops short of calling too many specific people or organizations out on their unethical behavior. Several times, it looks as if he might really tear into the enemies of progress, but he and the film pull too many punches. Perhaps he wanted to be as accessible as he could, but it felt weak to me.
I’ve always found it hilarious to hear An Inconvenient Truth decried as “nothing but a glorified slideshow” for two reasons. First, because that is objectively untrue, since the movie often goes beyond Gore’s presentation. Second because, by the technical definition of what a “movie” is, a slideshow can in fact be considered a movie. If a work of art creates its meaning by cutting together different images, it is a movie. Seriously, that’s all there is to it! Just ask Chris Marker.
Besides that, the “slideshow” insult carries a connotation that the film is dry or boring. Now, engagement is subjective, but Gore and director Davis Guggenheim can’t really be accused of not trying. Contrary to his popular reputation as a dullard, Gore is often playful in his presentation. And it isn’t in the way that a painfully out-of-touch teacher tries to be hip, either. He uses a scene from Futurama to explain greenhouse gases, for crying out loud! Guggenheim also knows exactly when to shift between the show and Gore’s personal stories. He cuts away before either side starts to drag things down, and keeps both lines feeling fresh.
The poster for An Inconvenient Truth boasts that it will be “the most terrifying film you will ever see.” Which I find funny, since Jesus Camp came out in the same year, and that doc is way scarier. That sums up my feelings about this film: that it has been a bit overblown. Now, it is by no means bad; in fact, its artistic quality has been mostly overlooked in all the controversy around its message. In the ideal world where the Oscars actually reward the most deserving films, would it still win? No. But then again, this movie has done more to energize the modern environmental movement than any scientific study ever could, and for that it deserves recognition and commendation. It’s not a masterpiece, but I can’t fault it too much.
*That being said, the answers to the questions I raise are, in order: who cares, who cares, no, and yes.