Sunday 13 August 2017

From the archive: "An Inconvenient Truth"

Had An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary record of Al Gore's lecture tour on climate change, been released in the UK back in July, when the country was sweltering in the midst of another of our now frequent heatwaves, it might have broken all prior box-office records for a documentary, chiefly by attracting audiences seeking relief from melting pavements inside air-conditioned cinemas. It is a testament to Mr. Gore's considerable skill as an orator, and to the power of the statistics gathered herein, that his argument appears no less persuasive for being disseminated during an overcast September, at which point Brits traditionally start bemoaning the end of summer and holding out for one more day of sun. Most politicians use the time freed up at the end of electoral campaigns to pen memoirs or take up golf; Davis Guggenheim's film reveals how Gore - introducing himself here as "the former next President of the United States" - took up a new hobby, namely touring the globe and collating as much information on global warming as one man might uncover.

An Inconvenient Truth is a simple film, and all the more effective for that: what we watch - almost all we have to watch - is Gore giving his lecture to a number of crowds in the U.S. and abroad. It's a little bit like one of those Royal Institute Christmas Lectures, only with even more bar charts and graphics, and better maintained hair, though Gore's footage of melting ice caps, time-lapse photography and map projections of cities being submerged by water also recall Koyaanisqatsi as translated from the Hopi Indian for the non-hippies among us. To break up what could become monotonous, we're offered interludes in which Gore shows his working - beavering away on his Apple Mac (apparently the most energy efficient of all personal computers) in hotel rooms and airport departure lounges - and biographical material that is the most contentious aspect of the film, a conflation of the personal and the political that's either a flagrant play for voter sympathies or true to the film's abiding theme: how human beings tend to react only to sudden, unexpected wake-up calls.

One argument against Guggenheim's film is that it contains too much information - or, rather, too much data that is overwhelming, either too bleak (if Gore's right, it'll soon be bye-bye to polar bears, Amsterdam and parts of lower Manhattan) or too concentrated to process in one trip to the multiplex. This is, admittedly, mitigated by the statement of intent right there in the title: these are meant to be inconvenient truths, and this an argument inclined towards onerous, incontestable weight. Still, Guggenheim and Gore have clearly studied and learnt from such recent activist documentaries as The Corporation: their film is similarly structured so as to plumb the depths of a dire situation before returning us to the surface on a buoyant note of honest-to-goodness optimism. Gore is not without humour, as some of his critics have claimed; anyone deemed funny enough to make a recurring cameo in Matt Groening's Futurama should be funny enough for you and I. Yet he seems driven by righteous anger when discussing the priorities of the current administration, making one ponder anew how different the past six years might have unfolded with Mr. Gore, rather than Mr. Bush, in charge. (At the very least, the Kyoto treaty would have been signed, less an act of political expediency than simple common sense.)

I can think of one area in which Guggenheim's film might have been more boldly staged: simply by cutting out the crowds Gore speaks to, and leaving us with the potent image of one man standing alone in the dark with only his hard-won stats and graphs to support him. Not only would this reduce the slight air of narcissism An Inconvenient Truth generates whenever one of Gore's points elicits whoops and applause from his on-screen audience, it would also tie in with the film's other recurring theme: Gore as a 21st century Cassandra, returning to a theme he's repeatedly addressed to indifference if not disdain from House Republicans. Something about that filmed audience inspires complacency: they're there as an editorial safety net, to assure us Gore is already being heard. We don't need them; this is one of those docs that does its job by putting all the available facts out there, communicating an idea with force and clarity and uniting an audience in the cinema. Even as I write this, I can imagine someone within the White House is preparing a scene-by-scene rebuttal of Gore's arguments, but the truth is - even as those wonks quibble with the labelling of the x and y axes, the oratorial equivalent of fiddling while Rome floods or burns - the general trends Gore describes are surely beyond dispute.

In my more altruistic moments, I like to believe the majority of people in this world want to do the right thing - certainly they do if the packed public screening of An Inconvenient Truth I was in is anything to go by - but one half-suspects it's really down to those in positions of power (who don't, generally, have the time or inclination to go to the cinema) to do likewise. Mr. Gore once did Mr. Bush the courtesy of stepping down to allow the latter the Presidency; one can only hope the current incumbent might be Texan gentleman enough to concede the floor for an hour and a half and allow a White House screening of Guggenheim's film. Let us speculate that, while he might skip the reel that details the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush might otherwise find the radar footage of tornadoes whizzy and very exciting; although I fear Gore's commentary, which insists "all tornado records have been broken in the U.S." might be applauded with one of those foam hands so beloved of sports fans and a chant of "We're number one! We're number one!" At which point, I would like to think one of Mr. Bush's more enlightened advisers might lean over and murmur a quiet but forceful "Yes, Mr. President, and we have to be first to do something about it."

(September 2006)

An Inconvenient Truth is available on DVD through Paramount; a follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, opens this Friday. 

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