An Inconvenient Truth
Director : Davis Guggenheim
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2006
In a great throwaway moment on an early-’90s episode of The Simpsons, Martin, Bart’s nerdish acquaintance from school, makes the mistake of wasting his last bit of cash on a talking Al Gore doll. He illustrates the foolishness of his purchase by pulling the string on the Gore doll’s back, which causes it to say in a flat, drawn-out voice, “You are hearing me talk.”
That, in a nutshell, has long been the perception of Al Gore, even to many of those who agree with him politically. Stiff. Wooden. Humorless. Boring. Thus, the idea of sitting through a feature-length documentary in which pretty much all he does is talk sounds on paper like an endurance test--can you stay awake while he drones?
Yet, An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that chronicles Gore’s traveling “slide show” lecture series on global warming, is anything but an endurance test. In fact, Gore grabs you early on and holds you, first by displaying a surprisingly fine-tuned, dry sense of humor (“I’m Al Gore, the former future President of the United States,” is his opening line) and then by slowly, but clearly and persuasively amassing a mountain of scientific data that point to the inconvenient truth of the title: global warming is a reality and we are in serious trouble if we don’t do something about it.
In many ways, any review of An Inconvenient Truth is not so much a review of the film as it is a review of Gore’s performance. Director Davis Guggenheim, a veteran of TV shows like Deadwood and Alias, does little more than train his cameras on Gore as he works his way through his well-organized and immensely sobering argument about global warming. Gore produces statistics and charts and maps and even a satirical cartoon by Matt Groening that illustrates the hard-headedness of those who would accept any other explanation of current climate shifts, no matter how labored, to avoid the conclusion that global warming is happening.
One of the Gore’s strengths in this regard is the fact that he has been doing this presentation for a long time; in fact, at one point he says that he has given it at least a 1,000 times. Thus, he’s polished and refined it to a gleam, working out all the best points and honing his argument to target not the choir, but rather those (like myself) who sometimes find themselves sitting on the fence. He pieces together all the data from decades of scientific research that, once accumulated, feels overwhelming in their obviousness. How could this not be one of the human race’s main priorities?
Images of rapidly disappearing glaciers (the snows of Kilimanjaro are almost no more), illustrated graphs that show how rising global temperatures literally go off the charts, and video images of recent catastrophic weather (he dryly describes recent years as being like a “nature hike through the Book of Revelation”) become undeniable in their power to everyone except those who have a vested interest in resisting the facts. Gore smartly counters the kinds of economic arguments that are often used against measures that would slow global warming, showing how U.S. automakers’ refusal to raise their emission standards is actually hurting them in the global market. Good planetary stewardship is also good business, a fact that seems to get lost in our “either/or” culture.
Conservative pundits will attack An Inconvenient Truth simply because they feel it is their duty, which is a shame because the idea of politicizing something like global warming, a planetary phenomenon for which we are all responsible, is not only absurd, but dangerous. For the most part, Gore keeps his political sensibilities in check and doesn’t allow the presentation to become a leftwing-vs.-rightwing issue, although he can’t help but take a few well-placed potshots at the “current administration.” But, how could he not? After all, this is the administration that hired an oil lobbyist to be chief of staff for the White House council on environmental quality.
If An Inconvenient Truth has a flaw, it that it can tend to be somewhat self-aggrandizing. Perhaps to add texture and make the film something more than just a filmed document of one of Gore’s presentations, Guggenheim intersperses bits of Gore’s biography that are pertinent to his longtime interest in environmentalism, some of which plays a bit too much like political hagiography.
Yet, some of this background information works to the film’s strengths. The near-death of Gore’s son and the drawn-out death of his sister from lung cancer are both well-known bits of his life that focused his political ambitions, the latter of which Gore was rightly criticized for exploiting on the campaign trail. In a moment of much-needed humility, Gore concedes in his voice-over narration that his fabled family farm in Tennessee was responsible for producing tobacco, even after the 1964 Surgeon General’s warning came out (and thus contributing directly to the death of smokers like his sister). It is, in a sense, Gore’s confession, as he is willing to include himself as having been part of a major problem, which makes his conviction about the realities of global warming and our moral imperative to do something about it all the more convincing. An Inconvenient Truth makes a powerful argument that only the willfully deaf will fail to hear.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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