My fellow Earthicans, as I discuss in my book, Earth in the Balance, and the much more popular Harry Potter and the Balance of Earth, we need to defend our planet against pollution, as well as dark wizards.
–Al Gore, “Crimes of the Hot”
Al Gore calls himself “the man who used to be the next President of the United States.” It’s a decent joke because it’s true and because it hints at the sense of melancholy and frustration increasingly felt even by those folks who didn’t vote for him. At the start of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore stands straight and designer-suited, looking out on an auditorium filled with people who want to hear him speak. Now that he’s lost a presidential contest and done a couple of Saturday Night Lives, it appears Mr. Ex-veep is on a roll.
This started with his slide show, now made large and widely available on film screens. He’s performed it over 1,000 times, he says, and has recently packaged it for franchising: like-minded environmental activists can take a seminar in how to give the lecture and project the slides, then go forth equipped to spread the word. That word, as demonstrated by An Inconvenient Truth, has to do specifically with global warming (though it is not to be confused with his appearance on a Futurama episode about global warming, “Crimes of the Hot”).
Delivering that word, Gore is surprisingly funny, agile, even, on occasion, witty. Rumor has it that this performance is closer to the “real Al Gore” than the more familiar, stiff version, but you’ll have to take that on faith, for this is a grand performance through and through. This impassioned Gore was on major display when the film premiered at Sundance and Cannes, which means he had something of a world stage to “get his message out”, something he was apparently unable to do as a presidential candidate. The message here, rearranged so it can’t fail to get across, appears urgent and unselfish: Gore pronounces, “If acknowledged, moral imperative is impossible to avoid.”
So here it comes, the message, tricked out with gadgets and graphs, digital mapping, and animated greenhouse gasses (they beat up a sunbeam because they’re bullies). Al Gore appears in various studied poses, ranging from sage to droll to earnest. Above all, earnest. This is his “issue”. He means to make it yours too.
Persuasion is something he’s practiced, being an elected politician. It’s true, as Frank Rich and others have noted, that Gore was out front on Iraq and Afghanistan (articulating concerns about their instability and lack of focus in the Bush administration’s policies). It’s also true that Al Gore remains a political figure, and his film reads like a campaign speech as much as anything else (“The Cannes Landslide for Al Gore”, New York Times, 28 May 2006). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s occasionally distracting: it allows critics to dismiss the film and worse, global warming, as “politics”.
An Inconvenient Truth addresses such thinking, going so far as to include a clip of James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, proclaiming global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” But, squeezed amid images of shrinking polar ice caps, Katrina aftermath, and a very sad-seeming digitized polar bear, Inhofe doesn’t carry much weight. In fact, he serves to rally viewers against his position, as preceding statistics and charts have revealed him to be straight-up wrong. While most “scientists”, according to Gore agree that global warming is a real threat, it’s also a subject of a “debate”, this being trumped up by fossil fuel industries (see: the recent spate of commercials aimed to stave off effects of this very film, in which CO2 is renamed “life”, because it’s what humans breathe out).
It’s hard not to worry about the figures An Inconvenient Truth lays out, long since updated since Gore researched his book, Earth in the Balance (1993): the number of Category Four and Five hurricanes has almost doubled in the last 30 years; some 279 species of plants and animals have responded to global warming by moving closer to the poles; the U.S. contributes to 30% of global warming; melting ice and warmer temperatures will eventually leave Manhattan and India underwater. It’s enough to make you want to reduce consumption and urge representatives to pursue progressive, pro-environmental action rather than, say, more subsidies for oil companies.
The documentary reinforces these points in a variety of ways, ranging from the slide show (where Gore is convincing and compelling) to what you might call sentimental devices, as when Gore repeatedly gazes out windows while his voiceover inventories his concerns over a receding natural world. A more awkward section has Gore explaining his decision to turn his energies to defending the environment, as, in part, a reaction to his then six-year-old son’s near-death in a car accident. While the trauma the film illustrates — by black and white stills of haunted, empty hospital corridors, or Gore sitting by the child’s bedside, the imagery, and sad music feels more exploitative than explanatory.
Gore goes on to describe the tragedy of losing his sister to lung cancer, noting as well that they came up in a family with deep roots in tobacco farming. No one ever told his sister smoking was dangerous, even when they knew, Gore suggests, and so the parallel comes clear. Years later, the truth came out, though it was surely inconvenient then and now for those with vested interests in cigarette sales. Gore’s insistent, motivated sense of morality, this story goes, has finally found an outlet, even making use of skills honed over years of campaigning — parrying, querying, quipping.
He’s good at it. While he observes that losing the 2000 election was difficult (“Well, that was a hard blow”), Gore keeps a seeming focus here: the earth needs to be saved. If the choice is, honestly, profits or the planet, you have to wonder what the profiteers are thinking. But then you remember: they’re seizing the day. Good for Gore, that he’s gleaned a different lesson from his time inside.