An Inconvenient Truth is a filmed version of an introductory-level lecture on the perils of planetary warming that Al Gore routinely gives to college crowds and other interested audiences around the world. The lecture includes moneyed Powerpoint-like presentations, animation interludes, and even physical stunts; at one point, the portly politico squeezes onto a cherry-picker and ascends high off the floor to dramatize an off-the-charts spike in a global warming line graph. With a running time of less than a hundred minutes, the film is packed with portentous figures and graphs to illustrate the extent of the problem, but for those who are illiterate in the language of climate science, it also serves up some striking prima facie evidence of alarming environmental irregularities happening before our eyes. The notion of drowned polar bears floating around in the sea is more gut-grabbing than a hundred bar graph statistics.
Produced by Natural Resources Defense Council trustee Laurie David, An Inconvenient Truth contains a number of compelling environmental data points, and the science behind the message is more or less uncontroversial, but ironically, it's the unnecessary decision to puff the film up to feature length with biographical interludes of Gore that raises the biggest questions. These moments, which sneak in more and more as the film goes on, showcase Gore as a wandering Thoreau-like character who stares wistfully out of plane windows, remembers old friends long gone and stands outside of himself to mourn his razor's edge defeat in the 2000 presidential election. Flashback footage of that event is laid over with the same moribund, hopeless music that accompanies the visuals of our impending environmental doom, which forces anyone who is politically minded to do an involuntary mental recalibration.
Does this film want me to view the 2000 election as some kind of avoidable, catastrophic setback for the environmental cause? I get the feeling that it does, which obliges me to point out the following inconvenient truth: the Democratic party, despite having an interest in courting a small, wealthy environmental activist base, will not touch with tongs any kind of environmental reform that could cause headaches for big business. The party's own policy papers spell this out, and you'll hear as much from honest and informed environmental lobbyists who pull out their hair over the intractable resistance of our money-soaked political system to dealing with issues like air pollution, wilderness preservation and vehicle emission standards.
Despite this whiff of unnecessary partisanship that creeps in occasionally (Gore even mourns the collapse of the Kyoto Treaty, but fails to mention that every Democratic senator voted against it in unembarrassed lockstep), An Inconvenient Truth contains enough sterling moments to bring us back around, such as when it reminds us that the first picture of the Earth taken from outside of its atmosphere is only a few decades old. Before that, the only visual of our round, blue marble world that now seems so commonplace came from imagination. This provides a striking moral imperative for all of us to at least acknowledge the limits of our understanding and the rapid pace at which we have acquired the technology to affect, and also harm, the natural habitat we depend on for our very lives.
Partisanship or no, the film contains one politically-charge scene that will provoke great agitation, or did in me at least. Gore recounts the story of the Bush administration official who more or less perpetuated a hoax on the public by riddling government science reports with counterfactual data on climate change -- data that was wholly unsupported by the broader scientific community. This action has been documented in a number of media outlets and I've never heard a substantial rebuttal. There's probably no legal statute on the books for prosecuting this kind of moral crapulence, but shame on him. Those kinds of actions provide grounding for corporate sharks who want to collude in the fiction that global warming is either bunk, or actually a planetary bonus. It poisons the well of debate in our society and provides intractable political foes with more ammunition to fire at each other, instead of working together to solve problems.
The environment is a huge issue, and this film has a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time, so it can be forgiven for racing from issue to issue at stumbling speed and rarely stopping to bore into any one issue with depth. After walking out of the screening, I rubbed my eyes and looked at my notes, reading the following chicken-scratch: "Hantavirus...caterpillars...coral reef...rainfall levels in Darfur." Of all the global warming-related issues, the only one that gets a substantial portion of the film devoted to it is the issue of the melting polar ice caps. It's a good choice, since catastrophe awaits most low-lying areas of the world, should those ice caps ever fall into the sea and melt. Gore's graph and data metrics are welcome here, but again it's the pictures and the first-hand video that prove most compelling. Vast, deep fissures in solid ice beds appear unnatural to the naked eye, and photos of tundra that was until recently a sea of ice but now looks more like barren desert deserve a serious scientific response, don't they? You don't need a degree in climatology to have opinions on these things.
At one point in the lecture, Gore quotes the father of Eric Schlosser's brand of crusading and hero of the factory worker, Upton Sinclair: "It is hard to get a man to understand something, if his living depends on him not understanding it." It's an apt statement – more than Gore realizes, I suspect -- and one that should probably be embossed onto the main entrance of the Natural Resources Defense Council headquarters, to remind them of the entrenched, bipartisan opposition they face as they keep their boats against the current and try to force some positive environmental change.