The rise of theatrically released documentaries has clearly reached a self-sustaining point, since what is essentially a filmed lecture has been released to rave reviews and strong box office. While it spices up proceedings with biographical interludes, the material is riveting enough in its own right: it’s Al Gore, global warming, and An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore has been a passionate global warming campaigner since college, giving slideshows and working within politics to try and foster environmental change. But since his ‘defeat’ in the 2000 US presidential election, Gore has reinvented himself by devoting himself wholeheartedly to the issue, giving an increasingly sophisticated and continuously updated slideshow lecture around the world in the intervening years (he estimates he has presented it over a thousand times). Now, Gore and director Davis Guggenheim have brought the material to a wider audience using cinema distribution, given that time is of the essence for the planet’s wellbeing.
The film should be addressed on two fronts: the quality of the lecture and its content, and the documentary itself. The lecture is engaging and easy to follow. Gore tackles the details without pandering, using Powerpoint animation very impressively to convey his points and the fruits of his research. As Gore presents them, they prove the prognosis for Earth to be bleak. He draws on numerous testing methods, including drilled ice samples from Antarctica and carbon dioxide emission calculations, to prove that the current warming is very real and not cyclical. A medieval warming did indeed take place, but it was minute compared to the staggering temperature increase of the last two decades – as he amusingly shows, the levels are literally off the charts. He has amassed this knowledge by going around the world (including Antarctica and the Arctic) and developed many prominent acquaintances – Gore isn’t messing about. And to ensure that he doesn’t appear to be standing on an ideological platform, he openly acknowledges the criticisms and scepticisms of global warming and takes time to refute common concerns. He (or at least the film’s coverage) does slip up by only marginally addressing George Bush and John Howard’s economic objections, as his ultimate point in this area – that the entire planet surely outweighs economic gain since it would ultimately be for nought – is sadly not pragmatic enough for some critics.
Your own politics will naturally influence how you view An Inconvenient Truth, but Gore counters this by insisting that this is hardly a political issue. Gore sensibly avoids attacking the Bush administration, as to do so would eliminate this apolitical plea as well as exposing himself to accusations of a bruised ego. Gore focuses on what is required rather than where we have failed. Despite scepticism from the highest levels of government, the consequences of global warming are irrefutably in our future unless we try and stem the tide. This is not a partisan concern, but an ethical one – to do nothing about this is to betray the next generation.
I’m sure my own feelings on the issue are bleeding through in a torrent despite any attempts at impartiality, but it’s hard not to do so, especially since Gore has worked so tirelessly for a sidelined issue that will hardly score him political points. The lecture is intercut either with fly-on-the-wall footage of Gore giving the lecture elsewhere and his travels around the globe, set to voiceovers explaining his rationale for this crusade, or glimpses into Gore’s childhood and the defining events for his cause throughout his adult life. These sections give the film a context that brings it closer to the documentary realm. We get an insight into his motivations, but not too much – this isn’t a Gore lovefest. The issue remains paramount, and Gore is explored in order to humanise this man educating us from the front of the room (the framing of certain shots sometimes feels like Gore is really there in the cinema). Global warming is such a massive concept that Guggenheim sensibly narrows the focus intermittently to remind us of the individuals that this will affect, both through Gore’s history and a poignant sequence about the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
That tragedy is positioned as a possible consequence for the damage done thus far, and Gore concludes the film by explaining that we know what needs to be done. Five types of emissions need to be reduced, not even eliminated, and we will return to levels circa 1970. Gore shows, or reminds us, that this masochistic descent can be reversed; we just need to fight to ensure that those in power lead us into doing so. This is perhaps the most important film of the year.