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June 2, 2006

Guggenheim and Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: good movie, great message

How does one begin to review An Inconvenient Truth—Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary about the perils of global warming, starring Al Gore—for its cinematic quality? It’s like evaluating Articles of Impeachment Against George W. Bush for its literary merit.

That is to say, films that put general artistry before their message are usually the most effective at conveying that message. I can’t think of a stronger argument for gay marriage than the gorgeously made Brokeback Mountain, nor a more incisive indictment of the American family than the poetically shot Junebug. Where, then, does that leave An Inconvenient Truth, which is essentially just Gore delivering a lecture for an hour and a half?

Well, thanks to a healthy dose of humor, some nifty graphics, and Gore’s homespun wisdom, Truth far outclasses left-wing hatchet jobs like Outfoxed. It’s even better—dare I say it—than most of Michael Moore’s work. Truth walks a fine line between educating the completely uninformed and entertaining the environmental intelligentsia, and for the most part, I’d have to say it succeeds. Never has the Paramount Classics logo—which features a majestic mountain crest—suited a film so perfectly. Truth is a paean to the Earth and the social responsibility it necessitates.

Guggenheim mines his serious subject for humor, so we get stories about Gore’s fourth-grade classmate (who stumbled upon the single-continent Gaia theory before the rest of the scientific community) and the topsy-turvy “drunken trees,” which can no longer stand upright due to excessive flooding in the soil. Actually, I’m not sure the drunken trees were supposed to be funny—certainly in the larger picture, they’re not—but the term itself is enough to inspire a few chuckles. Sure, it’s gentle comedy, but it’s a lot subtler than Michael Moore blasting “Vacation” over shots of Dubya playing golf.

That’s not to say Gore doesn’t take a few cheap shots himself. I was dismayed to hear him attribute a key fact to “Tony Blair’s scientific advisor,” because, well, Blair is a total lap dog for Bush (as we all learned from George Michael’s “Shoot the Dog” video). And while Gore is correct to link global warming to the rise of infectious diseases, when he invokes avian flu—“which is a very serious matter, as you all know”—it’s simply a cheap scare tactic. Sorry, Al, not buyin’ it. You, of all people, should realize that Donald Rumsfeld owns stock in flu medicine (go to snopes.com and search for “Tamiflu”). Besides, haven’t we learned our lesson from the West Nile virus hype?

The parts of the film meant to humanize Gore—concerning the deaths of his son and his sister, Nancy—are tastefully done, if a little dry. But I loved learning about Gore’s childhood on his father’s hog farm in Tennessee and would have liked to hear more about his career trajectory. The day after the screening, Gore told me about his senior thesis in an interview, and the topic (the impact of television on the Constitution) is fascinating. Why not include that in the movie? Surely the TV medium plays a huge part in how we perceive environmental issues.

But Gore finds other ways to make his point. A graphic depicting the World Trade Center memorial underwater is chilling, more so because it’s factually based. (Think of those eerie aerial shots of a submerged New Orleans.) Without scolding or pandering, Gore reminds us of the dismay we felt that day, then asks if we are willing to let the same level of destruction happen again. This hit home for me more than the majority of scenes from United 93, maybe because that film, for its supposed emphasis on the titular aircraft, spent far too much time showing the audience how government officials reacted to the crisis. Gore places the tragedy at a more personal level.

I can already hear some of my friends questioning how effective Truth can be if Gore refuses to slam the current administration—when it’s more effective for this very reason. Apparently, some pundits are getting excited about Gore in ’08. But even under that incredibly tenuous hypothesis, it’s difficult to imagine Gore participating in this project for personal or political gain. Funny, because Truth does more for the guy’s image than any single factor in his ’00 campaign. At times, Gore gives the vibe of an older, worldlier Jon Stewart. And those who think Dubya’s mispronunciations are charming can hear Gore refer to “tobaccah” and the Earth’s “crev-ass-es.” The word “Congress” is even in lowercase on one of his slides! See—Al Gore is just an ordinary guy, too!

I didn’t realize how disillusioned I’d become with the political process until I reread that last paragraph. If you feel the same way, too, know that Truth feels your pain. The five-point plan Gore advocates ends with this message about our current environmental situation: “It’s not too late.” Not too late to act, and not too late to (literally) save the world. Whether the Melissa Etheridge song that plays over the closing credits is the best way to rally people to the cause remains to be seen, but Gore’s optimism is appreciated.

Speaking of those credits, that’s the only place you’ll find practical suggestions for reversing the conditions Guggenheim and Gore spend the rest of the film wringing their hands over (other than writing to Congress-with-a-capital-C). The film could have done more to empower those in the audience, although this probably just would have led to a bunch of embarrassing tie-ins with the Toyota Prius.

While I can’t recommend An Inconvenient Truth for its outstanding filmmaking, I can recommend it for its above-average filmmaking and its timely message. This is a more honest approach than pretending it’s the most absorbing documentary ever made. You should see it, but only if Gore won’t be coming to your area to lecture soon.