"It must be nice to always know better, to always be the smartest one in the room."
"No. It's awful."
-- Peter Hackes and Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
For all of the talk about An Inconvenient Truth's ground-breaking nature -- a top-ten Box Office showing in its first week despite playing on less than 100 screens nationwide, a unique cinematic opportunity to have an ex-Vice President open up on film about his life and ideas, an unabashed attempt to try and change the direction of the planet's fate with mere storytelling and argument -- it also demonstrates one of the classic rules of indie filmmaking. If you want to get something on film fast, have the person you're filming practice, practice, practice. It works for adaptations of plays (like The Shape of Things or Melvin Goes to Dinner); it works for concert films (like The Last Waltz and Neil Young: Heart of Gold). There are no guarantees to success in filmmaking, but if your project involves pointing the camera at someone who's doing something they've done any number times before you've certainly narrowed down the number of things that might go terribly wrong.
And Al Gore has been talking -- and thinking -- about global warming for 30 years; recently, he's begun addressing crowds about the topic. Directed by high-end TV veteran Davis Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth takes Gore's road show and makes a movie out of it. In many ways, An Inconvenient Truth is like the documentary equivalent of adapting a musical like Phantom of the Opera or Hairspray into a film. And in many ways it is not, because when you make a film out of The Phantom of the Opera, there's not a flurry of punditry about if The Phantom is going to run for President again in 2008.
There's a lot of politicking around An Inconvenient Truth, much of which obscures the film's very real merits, and that's a pity. Liberals are making it the must-see film of the summer for left-leaning film fans, like The Passion of The Christ for Utne Reader subscribers. Conservative commentators are re-grinding the "Gore Loser" ax and dismissing the films' concerns as tree-hugging partisan nonsense aimed at the ex-oilman currently in The White House, who took the job away from Gore fair (or not) and square (or not) six years ago. The problem is that heated molecules don't move to the right or left; they simply rise, because physics is not partisan or ideological. (If it were, we'd be hearing about 'intelligent falling' instead of gravity.)
Some Leftists will love An Inconvenient Truth as it gives them a parallel-universe take on The Da Vinci Code: A brilliant, decent man is the only one who can marshal arcane information, decipher the conspiracy and save the world! (Gore has better hair than Tom Hanks, too.) And some Conservatives will hate An Inconvenient Truth, finding it a piece of propaganda scaremongering with no more basis in reality than, say, X-Men: The Last Stand. And both of those groups, with their completely off-base reasons to hate or love the film, will dominate the debate and squeeze out reasonable people who might actually be convinced either way.
But as a film, An Inconvenient Truth is well worth seeing; it's actually a nicely made documentary, even if you're just watching Gore run through Keynote slides on his PowerBook. (Movie Cliché Alert: Gore, like every movie good guy, uses Apple computing.) Much of An Inconvenient Truth is like watching Gore give the end-of-quarter marketing presentation -- and we all know how exciting that can be -- but the significant difference is that Gore's not giving numbers for the end of quarter but rather for the End of Days.
Gore explains -- unimpeachably, methodically, carefully -- about how the buildup of man-made gases is resulting in an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide which may be increasing global temperatures. (Actually, Gore's a lot less firm in this assertion than you'd think. Gore's trying to make the point that global warming is worth looking into based on the facts, where as much of the discourse about not worrying about global warming is based on wishful thinking and corporate inertia.) And Guggenheim does a good job of bringing Gore's public presentations and personal asides to life, even if I wanted to know less about Gore-the-person and more about global warming.
And my inner centrist was riding a roller-coaster during An Inconvenient Truth: I liked how Gore and Guggenheim did not use images of cute animals in peril too much (although there's a CG polar bear that gave me diabetes in about 5 seconds flat); you don't want this film to play solely on a level of environmental sympathy for lesser beings, The Deathmarch of the Penguins. At the same time, why does the central question any unconvinced person would most be curious about -- Is fighting global warming going to hurt my job, my pocketbook, my standard of living? -- have to wait until 15 minutes before the closing titles? And God help us, did Melissa Etheridge have to do the theme song over the end credits? You couldn't reach out to someone less obvious, like Jimmy Buffett or Jack Johnson?
But this is Gore's show, and it is easy for Guggenheim to make Gore look good, because he is good -- warm, funny, incisive and committed. He can get away with a joke at his expense -- "Hello; I'm Al Gore; I used to be the next President of the United States. ..." -- and then sell a line that quietly, defiantly and firmly accuses the current administration of costing us all a high price: "Maybe we should be concerned about other problems as well as terrorism?" And Gore knows how to structure an argument, too -- citing the Global warming findings of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's science adviser, and implicitly raising the contrast that we trust Tony Blair's advisors and intelligence when going to war but fail to hear their concerns as regards the fate of life on Earth. ...
And a big part of An Inconvenient Truth's appeal is its maddening, charming, infuriating and earnest naiveté. This is a film that thinks it can change politics -- which becomes truly hilarious after a few moments contemplation of our re-districted, campaign-contribution, incumbent-favoring public sphere, where politics itself can't change politics-as-usual. There's a note in the credits about how An Inconvenient Truth is an "energy offset," "carbon neutral" film -- or, in other words, no planets were harmed in the making of this film. And maybe that is earnest naiveté, but I'd rather that than numb, dumb cynicism or blind, willful ignorance.
And all of this is irrelevant to the fact that, yes, An Inconvenient Truth works as a movie; Guggenheim manages to turn info-bits like the total number of annual frost-free days in Iceland -- I wish I were kidding -- into compelling parts of a gripping narrative that is neither sensationalized nor treated lightly. You'll walk out of An Inconvenient Truth talking to your seatmates; you will have much to think about; you'll be confronted with a vision of the worst-case scenario and seduced with an appeal to the best parts of America. An Inconvenient Truth may be summertime counter-programming, but it's also one of the more noteworthy and thought-provoking films of the year.
(For more on An Inconvenient Truth's controversy and genesis, see Karina Longworth's report on the Al Gore WIRED Town Hall. See also Kim Voynar and Ryan Stewart's previous reviews of the film.)