THE CLIMATE PROJECT
Eleven years ago David Guggenheim and Laurie David managed to turn a documentary about a most unlikely subject — a slide show by a man famous for being too dull to be elected president — into an Oscar-winning international hit. The reaction to An Inconvenient Truth convinced the film’s star to assemble and train an army of climate-crisis presenters now known as The Climate Reality Project.
Guggenheim and David are gone, replaced by a new editorial team, but the star is back with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Most of the reviews so far are less than complimentary, and for good reason. But I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend the film anyway, largely because it’s a more honest portrayal of Al Gore the human being — and his approach to addressing the biggest public policy challenge of our time — than was the 2006 vehicle.
First, though, let’s address the problems with the film, beginning with its raison d’être. It’s really not a sequel at all, more like An Inconvenient Remake. Just as Gore’s Keynote slide show has managed to stay current without actually evolving much over the past decade (not necessarily a bad thing), so the film preserves many key elements, swapping out each pivotal moment for a modern analog, and sticking close to the guiding philosophy of balancing tales of desperation with testimonials of hope.
Gone is the graph in which the trendline of rising greenhouse-gas emissions goes so high that Gore needs a cherry-picker to reach the end point. But the 2017 replacement, a column chart of the annual contributions of new solar power to Chile’s electricity mix, gets effectively the same treatment. Flood videos from 2015 replace flood videos from 2005. And there is still the requisite example of Gore getting all verklempt in front of his trainees as he describes the rising death tolls from extreme weather. So even with a new director and production crew, Gore is firmly in charge of the both the theatrical and cinematic formulas.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But do we really need an updated version of something we’ve already seen? One can argue that, yes, we do. Just as Hollywood seems to have a inexhaustable supply of Spiderman remakes because it knows that there’s always a younger audience who will prefer the latest version, so Gore understands the need to keep it fresh. The scientific underpinnings of the story notwithstanding, this is popular culture we are talking about here.
To be fair, there are significant differences between the two docs. The first one managed to sear certain images into viewers’ brains. The cherry-picker scene or the one where New York City gets inundated by sea-level rise are perfect examples. In fact, despite the emphasis on Gore’s personal odyssey, I submit that what people remember most about AIT is the evidence for the urgency of doing something about global warming, which is, after all, the whole point of the film.
By contrast (I could be wrong here, but all I can do is reflect my own reactions, and those of the folks sitting near me in the cinema), what most viewers will likely take away from AIS is images of Gore himself. Gore the frustrated presidential candidate, Gore the jet-setting volunteer diplomat, Gore the dear leader, Gore the high-stakes interlocutor, Gore the tired crusader. This is more problematic.
The film hadn’t even been officially released and the same old misleading complaints from the science-denial crowd about his Tennessee home’s electrical bills started flooding the far-right echo chambers. Gore is still hated by much of the country, although for no readily explainable reason, as far as I can tell. Putting him even more front and center is probably not the best way to make friends and influence people.
I am sure many will be surprised by the relatively short shrift given to the presenters, who are, after all, a direct consequence of the original film and a big part of Gore’s legacy. Surely a sequel would pay some attention to them. Yet the only presenter who gets any screen time is a Filipino who is still traumatized by the devastation caused by a typhoon that tore through his island. And even here, Gore gets the last word.
Maybe, though, this is exactly the point. Both Gore’s strengths and flaws are laid bare in the film. Sure, we get far more of him than we probably want. There was no need to rehash his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling that handed the presidency to George W. Bush. That was well explored the first time around. Plus, it’s hard to believe that Gore is responsible for the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement, even though the film makes his critical role as a broker in getting India on board a fundament part of the narrative.
But we get the bad with the good. At times Gore looks like he’s seen better days. Some of the shots feature his less-than-trim physique. There’s the embarrassingly brief encounter in Paris with the newly elected Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who dismisses Gore’s words of appreciation for bringing Canada back from the dark side by humbly quipping that “it was the Canadian people, not me,” before running off to whatever important appointment he was trying to keep. The film even wraps up with a self-righteous declaration of certainty of purpose.
This level of honesty make AIS worth the 98 minutes it asks of your time. We see both the impact one human being can have, and the limits of such power. Gore could have chosen to close with an admission of the latter, something along the lines of “Maybe I’m just titling at windmills (so to speak), but what else can one man do?” But he didn’t. For better or worse, that’s not who he is. And as carefully scripted as this documentary is, it succeeds much better than its predecessor at revealing the personality that has driven so much of the public conversation around climate change.
By the way, I’m one of the thousands Gore has trained to deliver his presentation, a task I still do from time to time. (As I was finishing off this review, in a public library, someone who had seen one of talks a few years ago walked up and asked me if I’d be doing another one thanks to the attention AIS is getting.) Like all my colleagues, I still care more about the message than about the messenger. But why a decade spreading a brilliantly crafted and compelling message has changed so few minds is a vital question, to which no convincing answer has yet been supplied. If nothing else, this new look at Gore and his methods gets us little closer to one.