The Categorical Imperative
An Inconvenient Truth / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 26, 2006 | Comments ()
For some people, it will be impossible to approach any subject championed by former Vice President Al Gore with anything other than the kind of mild, bemused contempt some parents show for their children when, for the hundredth time, their kid bounds into their field of vision with the latest finger-painting masterpiece, only to have the parent nod and smile and send the kid away. This isn’t just a partisan difference, either, though Gore is best known as the guy who won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election, lost the White House in a much-contested Supreme Court decision, then went off to grow a beard and put some space between himself and the political machine he’d served for 25 years that had so suddenly spit him out. No, there seems to be an air of polite but firm rebuttal surrounding most of the coverage Gore gets nowadays, as if reporters find it both cute and a little sad that this once-powerful public figure has been reduced to peddling around the world a high-class PowerPoint presentation that talks of the dangers of global warming and environmental change, areas in which we already consider ourselves pretty well informed. Maybe he’s been beaten so badly that this speech, this slideshow, is all he has left in him.
But to think that way is foolish and short-sighted. TV producer-director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth is basically a filmed version of Gore’s speech about global warming and its consequences that Gore has been giving for years now, but it’s much more than that. Guggenheim does right by both his subjects — Gore and the environment — by crafting a balanced film that shows the man and his material in the broader context of personal, political, and economic history. It’s not that Gore’s sudden brush with life a heartbeat away from ruling the free world made him want to support green causes; rather, it was his introduction while in college to Earth sciences and the effects or rising amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it relates to global change that influenced his decisions while serving as a congressman and his choice to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. He’s been tracking the growing levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere since the mid-1960s and, after his failed run at the White House six years ago, he again decided to start giving “the speech,” as he calls it. Most of this is related to the viewer through effective voice-overs, as Guggenheim shows us everything from family photos to the Tennessee farm of Gore’s youth to shots of Gore organizing his slideshow while researching or making notes. Gore rarely speaks to the camera except when giving his presentation in an intimate room of relatively young onlookers and, even then, he’s speaking to them, not into the lens. It’s like being a classroom led by a dry-humored and impassioned lecturer, and it’s wonderful.
I could get into all the specific reasons Gore delineates to disprove the notion that protecting the environment comes at the cost of weakening the national economy, like the fact that American-made cars are now below Chinese-required emission levels and often unsellable overseas, but you’d do better to hear it from Gore. He’s clearly done his homework in this area, and has been doing it for 30 years, and the amount of scientific research he brings to the table as well as declassified government numbers about everything from the thinning polar ice caps to rising sea temperatures is staggering. He lands only one outright jab at the Bush administration, and it’s a good one, but he gets it out of the way early on, almost as if people are expecting him to do it, waiting on the edge of their seats to hear the former passenger of Air Force Two do five minutes of “Take my President, please.” However, much of Gore’s humor isn’t born of bitterness, but of disappointment that things have slipped so far out of our control on a global scale. His information is thoroughly researched and aimed at bringing about a truly nonpartisan change in the way things are done. Through Guggenheim, Gore relays stories of how his son nearly died when he was struck by a car as a boy, which made Gore realize the importance of protecting what was most precious to him and caused him to reexamine what it meant to be a moral, responsible human and consumer. He also tells of working on his father’s farm as a child and raising, among other crops, tobacco; when Gore’s older sister died of lung cancer from smoking, Gore Farms stopped cultivating tobacco. It’s a heartbreaking example of how Gore learned firsthand what it means to connect the dots too late to do anything, to suffer a devastating loss that could have been prevented. Guggenheim brings the storytelling skills sharpened on shows like “24,” “Alias,” and “Deadwood” to give us a wide-angle view of Gore as a man motivated to urge change not just because he believes it’s the morally right thing to do, but also because he knows the pain that can come from ignoring the symptoms of our dangerous habits. Gore knows from regret, and regret is a powerful catalyst for change.
Gore’s numbers about global warming take on a new weight when he works his way to Hurricane Katrina and the inevitable increase in both size and number of storms because of rising ocean temperatures and other factors. Gore’s slideshow grows more urgent as he discusses the devastation in New Orleans and how it could have been avoided or lessened based on our behavior. This is hardly news at this point, and it’s a little uncomfortable that Gore’s point is brought home thanks to the death and disease and carnage in the Gulf. But Gore reasons, and I think correctly so, that such shocks are the only thing that can motivate the country to enforce real change in regards to the environment.
Gore says that “the moral imperative to make big changes is inescapable,” though it’s confusing to hear him say that acting as better stewards of environmental protection is a moral and not political issue and then hear him talk about the inherent politics of such stewardship, i.e., the United States’ choice not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on economic grounds. The reality is that both political and moral choices are involved, and though Gore eventually sells this point, he comes up against the problem that often plagues political liberals, namely, he doesn’t enumerate many ways to fix the problems we’re facing. Yes, we worked to decrease the output of CFCs several years ago after the depleting ozone layer became the big topic of the moment, but how are we — as viewers, as American citizens, as people who don’t want the world to spin into the kind of apocalyptic turmoil Gore promises we’ll see if we don’t change our ways — supposed to implement change? Whether Guggenheim sensed this problem or because Gore’s slideshow is more about ideas than execution, I’m not sure, but the closing credits list a variety of personal changes for the viewer, e.g., walking/bicycling when possible, supporting hybrid cars, etc. The credits are also set to an original song by Melissa Etheridge, which somehow deadens the preceding 90 minutes by making the film feel like something that’s being marketed a little too hard to the youth of America. (I mean, come on, Melissa Etheridge? Were the Goo Goo Dolls busy playing for Barack Obama?) There’s also a URL for the film’s official site displayed throughout the credits, and the site features quotes and ways for visitors to “take action.”
An Inconvenient Truth is an intellectually stimulating, visually pleasing, and morally compelling documentary, and I implore anyone who might dislike Gore to see the film regardless and judge it for its content, not its messenger. The problems detailed in the film go beyond party lines. It’s no surprise that the company behind An Inconvenient Truth, Participant Productions, also produced Murderball, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Syriana. The company has stated that its belief in “the power of media to create great social change.” That’s what Gore believes, and that’s what he calls on us to be: Participants.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.