Saturday, June 03, 2006

Super Serial

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - "My name is Al Gore," says Al Gore in the beginning of Davis Guggenheim's new documentary An Inconvenient Truth (*** out of ****). "I used to be the next president of the United States."

That little joke---referring to Gore's 11th-hour loss of the 2000 presidential election when, for a few hours on election night, everyone seemed to think he was going to be the next president of the United States instead of George W. Bush---gets hearty laughter from the lecture-hall crowd that has assembled to watch his lecture on the impending danger caused by global warming. "I don't find that especially amusing," he adds in a self-mocking deadpan.

This is Al Gore in a way most people haven't quite seen him. Most people attribute his presidential election loss in 2000 to Gore's lack of charisma and passion, but those qualities are certainly in evidence in An Inconvenient Truth as he presents his slideshow---one which he says he has presented many, many times---to both the audience in the film and to us, the viewing audience.

And damned if he doesn't make so convincing a case for the legitimacy of global warming as a real environmental problem that he just might convince most of us to actually get off our passive butts and make big changes in our energy consumption habits. (The end credits of the film start off with a bunch of suggestions for us to take home as to how we can help reduce the danger of global warming.)

But if I dwell a bit more on Al Gore himself that on the content of his slideshow here, it's because I think what makes An Inconvenient Truth more than the usual talking head documentary is director Guggenheim's presentation of Gore in the film.

Global warming is clearly a subject that means a lot to Al Gore. How much? Through Gore's soft-voiced voiceover narration, Guggenheim explores the man's passion for the subject in little bursts that occasionally interrupt his lecture. Perhaps the most intriguing little nugget is Gore's anecdote about the effect the death of his younger sister had on him: basically, it shaped his belief that self-destructive behavior needs to be stamped out before it ever has a chance to get out of hand. In another context, this kind of anecdote might sound like a political campaigning ploy to get easy sympathy: in the context of An Inconvenient Truth, however, it's part and parcel of a documentary that, when it's not involving us with the sobering case Gore lays out for us about how global warming might negatively affect the world in the future if we aren't careful, tries to bring some personal warmth and substance to Gore's lecture, give it a sense of underlying drama.

For me, aside from the content of the slideshow itself, that was one the most interesting thing about An Inconvenient Truth: it's a thoroughly well-argued op-ed piece with the brio of personal drama. Gore presents his statistics and his charts with the flair of a good college lecturer, but by interjecting the central lecture with shots of Gore in private moments and his voiceover narration hinting at why he feels so strongly about the issue of global warming, the juxtapositions somehow enhance the heat of personal commitment that one might not necessarily get from Gore's slideshow without the personalizing interjections.

Isn't it all a bit too flattering, though? Admittedly, this is not a film to criticize Gore's efforts in any way, and so An Inconvenient Truth could perhaps be accused of political image-building rather than sincere activism on the part of the filmmakers. That thought came to my mind a few times, but even if the film does dangerously walk the fine line between journalism and hagiography---listen, everyone, to this great activist Al Gore!---because Gore's message is so powerful, and because Gore is more engaging than most of us have ever seen him in public, for the most part I think it overcame those kinds of concerns. It didn't really bother me a great deal, in other words, although I could see how it might bother others.

What is Gore trying to tell us? That global warming is a real problem, one that is getting worse by the year; that our current administration is ignoring the problem at our peril; that combating global warming is "not just a political issue, but a moral issue." (I'm not sure I understand why he believes it's a moral issue; it's an environmental issue, certainly, but moral?) Why wouldn't we try to save the planet that we live in from becoming inhabitable for future generations, he seems to suggest?

How effective is Gore and An Inconvenient Truth? So effective that, as I drove back home from Princeton's Garden Theatre---where I saw the film---I reflected deeply on how maybe I should have taken the train to Princeton instead, just to save energy. Whether the film---and Gore's concurrently published book---will actually lead the way in helping to save the earth is still an open question. Nevertheless, the film itself is thought-provoking, intriguing on more than one level, and utterly convincing. It demands to be seen.

And yes, this time Al Gore is super serial (a wink wink to South Park fans who might recall a recent lampooning of Gore and his mission, substituting, of all things, a half-man, half-bear, half-pig called---conveniently enough---"Manbearpig" for global warming. Gore's recurring cry in that episode was "I'm super serial"---"I'm serious," in other words).

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