Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): An Inconvenient Truth

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore and director Davis Guggenheim assemble a battery of evidence to prove global warming's impact and plead for action to arrest its malign effects. They do so with humor, grace, and a surprising amount of style. Writing about the film after its Cannes premiere in May 2006, Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir wrote, "It's difficult to imagine that 'An Inconvenient Truth' will change many Americans' views on global warming. Gore's track record as an environmental advocate is well known, and the film is not likely to play widely or well among the Fox News demographic. It may rally those of us who already agree with him to push the issue closer to the top of the national debate, and certainly that's a worthy goal." From the standpoint of 2 1/2 years later, we can already see that O'Hehir was overly conservative at best, and possibly just plain wrong. This has been one of the most influential films of the decade.


In the wake of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Nobel Prize (listed in order of importance, of course). More importantly, the movie sparked a green revolution in mass culture and if 2006 was the year of Iraq, when the public and the media finally decided to stick it to George Bush, and 2008 is turning into the year of the economy when we face up to the enormous bill our society has wracked up, 2007 was the year of global warming. And if the trendiness of green chic has died down a bit, its serious implications have not - even in the midst of a financial meltdown, both candidates talk about energy constantly. Suddenly, an inconvenient truth has become a very convenient political issue (as I stated in another review, earlier today, it ties together energy, the economy, national security, and the environment). One hopes it will move on from there.

As for the film's other subject, he opens the film (essentially a long, high-tech slide show punctuated by biographical asides) by calmly introducing himself to the live audience: "My name is Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States." When everyone laughs, Gore assumes a mock-petulant exasperation and deadpans, with a twinkle in his eye, "I don't find that especially amusing." At the time of An Inconvenient Truth's premiere, there was much talk of a presidential run. Within a year, this seemed not only unlikely but superfluous; suddenly "presidential" was beneath Gore. Not a bad legacy for a defeated (well, sort of) politician to attain. With An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore has been successfully rebranded as "too good" for political discourse and as voters awaited his primary endorsement this year, the name was pronounced in hushed, reverant terms. If naysaysers see Obama as a Messianic figure, then Algore is the Father On High, above all petty political squabbles. He did not endorse.

No doubt the visual tenor of the film added to Gore's above-politics lustre. Guggenheim, who directs television for HBO, casts the movie with a tastefully glossy sheen. It's one of the most perfect expressions of the zeros (that's 2000s) aesthetic: monochrome but deep-hued, sharply focused, elegant, stylish, like the iPod. And there's more than the faint whiff of moneyed good taste about the picture: even the director's last name suggests broad-minded, philanthropist, scrupulously maintained largesse. (I'm reminded of that evocative Fitzgerald line from The Great Gatsby: "Her voice is full of money.") With this presentation, environmentalism is repackaged; it's no longer a political issue, but now a fundamental tenet of right-thinking American society, akin to racial harmony and general prosperity.

Indeed, one of An Inconvenient Truth's great achievements was to yank the concern over global warming from the margins and place it squarely in the mainstream, selling it to Americans as something almost upwardly mobile. Gone were the turtle suits of Seattle and Davos, replaced by a well-groomed (if slightly stocky) man in a dark suit, travelling around the world, one hand on his laptop like a post-Information Age, nonviolent, Tennessee-accented James Bond. One of Gore's problems in the 2000 election was that he made an unconvincing populist. Though his Southern drawl has deepened by 2006, he is emphatically not a man of the people but a kind of Greek god. If I sound slightly incredulous, forgive me: I was deeply impressed by the movie's aesthetic appeal and admire the effectiveness of its "chicer than thou" strategy.

Nonetheless, An Inconvenient Truth attempts to ground its high-toned aristocratic aesthetic with flashbacks to Gore's past life, with mixed success. His tone softened and voice deepened for narration purposes, the son of a senator recalls his father's vast farm in Tennessee. Though always wooden (he's a bit looser and more comfortable now, but in part by embracing his inherent stiffness instead of running away from it) there was also a warm sincerity beneath the slightly robotic tones in Gore's delivery and presence that redeemed him in his political years. As Gore remembers simple childhood days spent in nature, and the way his sister's death from cancer stopped the family from harvesting tobacco (the point being that personalization awakens consciousness), and how his son's illness made him more intent to protect the earth for his children's and their children's futures, it can feel like the film is putting one over on us: mixing a dash of soft-news bio with its hard science sell. But Gore doesn't seem to be in on the joke, so it works to a certain extent.

When I sat down to write this review I intended to say that despite its Oscar, this is not the best documentary of the year. And it isn't - Iraq in Fragments, which I will be reviewing this weekend, is not only the best doc but possibly the best feature of 2006, period. But Oscar's decision makes sense and not just for political reasons. An Inconvenient Truth is extremely effective in subtle ways; you watch it and think, "I want whatever this is selling." Which sounds cynical and manipulative but is very smart: in theory, it's akin to John Lennon's antiwar pop culture campaign, "War is Over" and "bagism" and all that, except it actually worked. As Lennon said, "If you can sell soap, why not peace?" Or, for that matter, environmental awareness? I'll leave you to parse out whether awareness will lead to action or just more green-themed nights on NBC.

As for the actual content of the movie, it is well-delivered, convincing, and yes, disturbing. As for how much is exaggeration or simplification, not being of a scientific bent, I can't say. There are some websites out there which attempt to debunk Gore's arguments but the little I've read has not been very convincing - chinks in the fortress wall at best. As Gore points out in the movie, about 50% of articles in the mainstream media have expressed skepticism about global warming, whereas zero articles in peer-reviewed journals have seen any reason to doubt the scientific evidence.

And, hey, on a purely superficial level, Gore and Guggenheim have outflanked the "skeptics," leaving the argument between global warming believers and deniers looking a little bit like this:


And if Al Gore has been able to turn himself into Mac, rather than PC...well, that's no small accomplishment.

2 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

It all comes down to a simple decision matrix. What is the worst that can happen if we do nothing against the worst outcome if we do something? It is fair to say that the overwhelming scientific evidence and what common-sense tells us is pretty clear - do something and fast.

MovieMan0283 said...

Agreed.