An Inconvenient Truth
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Adapted from the book by Al Gore
The new film from documentarian Davis Guggenheim, with a narration spoken and presumably written by Al Gore (although there is, curiously, no "writer" credited, Gore is the author of a book of the same title, being released simultaneously with the film), is a powerful and compelling piece of work, but unfortunately leaves the feeling of being less effective than it might have been. It comes across as a collaboration between a couple of people who are too polite, too cautious and ultimately too conventional to put the passion they clearly feel for their subject up on the screen.
First, let's talk about what's right with this film - and there's a lot to talk about. It is based on a "slide-show" lecture that Gore has given around the US and the world in slowly evolving forms for more than two decades. It has its roots, as Gore relates, in research into atmospheric carbon-dioxide build-up begun by one of his professors at Harvard in the 1960s.
This prescient scientist thought to inquire into the possibility that human activity on the scale that began to be seen in the century after the industrial revolution might influence the chemical composition of the earth's atmosphere and he set about to create a consistent file of data that would document any such effects.
What he found - and shared with Gore and other students - surprised and alarmed him. In the years since his initial data collection, it has become a substantial part of the evidentiary basis for the conclusion that human activity is contributing to a new, radically different level of change in atmospheric composition, and resulting climatological changes.
Gore's illustrated lecture clearly records some of these changes: the disappearance of the glacial "Snows of Kilimanjaro" and other glaciers around the world, from the Himalayas to the Italian Alps to our own Glacier National Park; the disappearance of the Aral Sea and Lake Chad - formerly two of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world; the increase in average global temperatures, with the ten hottest years recorded coming in the last decade and a half - including 2005 - the hottest year ever.
The science is clear, understandable and unequivocal. As Gore takes pains to point out, a study of nearly a thousand articles on climate change in peer-reviewed journals - the source of the most carefully-scrutinized scientific inquiry - found not one single article that sought to challenge the finding that human activity is principally responsible for the sharp rise in atmospheric CO2 levels and the resulting effects on climate.
Such unanimous agreement by the scientific community gives this explanation the standing of "fact." But this knowledge is contrasted with a review of articles in the popular press, more than half of which suggested that this conclusion was "only a theory" and implied that there might be some difference of opinion in the scientific community - an implication which is simply contrary to the facts.
The charts and data Gore presents are impressive and well-documented - effective graphics. They are clear and simple. The show the obvious correlation between increasing CO2 concentration and increasing global temperature. The video clips and still "before-and-after" photos bring home the practical meaning of the kinds of changes that are already being felt. And like any good teacher or lecturer, Gore presents his evidence in a clear, logical sequence that makes a complex situation easy to understand. Yet he doesn't oversimplify or talk down to his audience in any way.
The challenge is to make this subject and this presentation into a compelling motion picture, and it is here that the film stumbles. It is notable that the audiences Gore is shown talking to (and much of the footage appears to be live clips from actual presentations) are college students and faculty from middle-class and upwardly-mobile working-class backgrounds. These are people of some education whose experience has prepared them to think critically about subjects, analyze information that is put before them and reach conclusions.
But the experience of the last two elections and recent "disinformation" campaigns shows us that these people are not typical of the mass of American citizens. As recently as last year, polls found that more than half the adults who got their news primarily from the Fox network believed that WMDs had been found in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was involved with Al Qidah in the incidents of September 11, 2001.
The inescapable conclusion is that being "right" and having the facts on your side isn't enough to the convince the electorate. Our public education system has failed to do its job of making the majority of citizens informed participants in our Democratic process. Just as Alexis de Toqueville warned back in 1812, in the absence of such an informed, involved electorate, capable of incisive analytical thought, governments like ours run the risk of being taken over by demagogues.
This is a perception that Gore perhaps failed to understand in his political career, and that he doesn't give sufficient weight to here. He and Guggenheim have made a film that ought to be convincing to any thoughtful adult who is willing to approach it with an open mind. The problem is that such people don't to make up the majority in the US today.
Thus while all the other industrialized countries in the world are enforcing CO2 standards and accepting the blueprint for reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions laid out in the Kyoto protocol, only the US and Australia refuse to commit themselves to what the international scientific community has declared a necessary first step toward avoiding catastrophe. And there is no compelling outrage among the general American population.
While this relatively low-key, highly-rational movie makes a great deal of sense, we can see from experience that will not go far in convincing those who most obdurately fail to - and most desperately need to - understand the threat we face. And here we must turn from a critique of the film's arguments to a critique of its value as "filmed entertainment."
An Inconvenient Truth will provide further evidence of the reality and seriousness of this threat for the already "converted." It will convince those "undecideds" who have the patience, the critical intelligence and the basic analytical skills to sit through it. But will it reach those whose inertia, whose blind faith in "the administration" or "the President," whose indifference and apathy have allowed this situation to develop in the first place? I am afraid not.
This is the film's primary shortcoming, in its conception and its execution. It is not designed to reach the audience it most needs to reach. Gore's presentation, although polished and leavened with some personal anecdotes and humor, is an intellectual exercise akin to attending a very well put-together college lecture.
But there is a reason why most Americans - and especially those who harbor the most extreme mis-conceptions and most need to learn more about their world - don't attend such events. They do not see themselves as intellectually prepared to understand them, they don't see the relevance to their own lives, and they have been demoralized, by a public education system that focuses on obedience and rote-learning, from believing that they have the capacity to make independent critical judgements - or that their judgement matters
As Michael Moore has proved in each of his films, it is humor, personal stories and emotional commitment to the subject that can overcome this resistance, to make documentaries into popular viewing, and inspire the dry compendium of statistics, ideas and arguments with human interest and a visceral, intuitive "sense" that reaches across educational and class boundaries.
Some have objected to Moore's approach as manipulative (which it definitely is) as if that were somehow morally objectionable. Such quibbles are misleading. All communication intended to influence behavior is by definition "manipulative." Our culture runs on "advertising" - which is the blatant, calculated, scientific manipulation of behavior. Moore is accused of "manipulation" by his detractors precisely because he is so effective at getting his message across.
B.F. Skinner demonstrated in the 1950s that all interactions between organisms have an inherent aspect of mutual manipulation - with each organism trying to influence the other to get its needs met. And an approach like the one taken here is no less manipulative for being self-restrictive and unsuccessful.
What the film primarily lacks is that quality known variously as "juice," "Elvis," or "funk." It is a difficult characteristic to define objectively, but it contains aspects of spontaneity, attitude, risk, personal involvement, humor and confrontation. While Gore and Guggenheim recognize the need for this kind of engagement - they go out of their way to pad out the public presentation with animated sequences, touching personal stories from Gore's life and some self-deprecating humor - they don't manage to successfully bring it off.
Guggenheim's pacing, editing and narration are always effective and workmanlike, but they lack the spark and excitement, the "on-the-fly," improvisational quality of Moore's best work. A few of the shots are heavy handed - particularly several that silhouette Gore against background slides of the earth seen from space. And there are several sequences that play far too much like out-takes from a campaign film.
The camera work and editing are proficient and professional, but there is a lack of the inspired visual rhythm that can make even a dull film come alive, or startling, dizzying camera work that can wake up an audience to look at the images in a new way. As Gore points out, many of the pictures of the earth that he presents are among the most familiar, iconic images of our time. Although they still have the weight that made them meaningful in the first place, "An Inconvenient Truth" fails to ignite the new insight into them that would renew and broaden their power.
But don't get me wrong. This is a very intelligent, highly-watchable, well-made film that anyone alive now can - and I hope will - profit by watching. It provides a wealth of information and a basis for further research and study into the subject. And it asks its audience to go beyond simple passive "understanding" of its message, and urges us on to action - a course that is undeniably necessary if we are to avoid some terrible consequences. For all these virtues and more (not the least of which is the closing-titles song from Melissa Etheridge, which makes a belated but valiant and partly-successful attempt to inject a little "Elvis") it is a film well worth your time.
That's my take on it. What's yours?