Movie Review

The gathering storm

Washington PostJune 16, 2006 

  • 3 stars

    Documentary.

    Narrator: Al Gore.

    Director: Davis Guggenheim.

    Web site: http://an-inconvenient-truth.com.

    Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

    Theatre: Chapel Hill: Varsity. Durham: Carolina. Raleigh: Colony.

    Rating: PG (some unsettling themes).

We're pressure-cooking the planet to death -- and Al Gore has the flow charts to prove it.

"An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary by Davis Guggenheim, follows Gore on his well-publicized world tour, in which he warns audiences that humankind faces dire climate consequences if it doesn't curb its carbon dioxide emissions. The film also reveals how the near death of Gore's 6-year-old son inspired a personal mission to save the world from greenhouse gases.

We know what you're thinking, but as this hagiographic but surprisingly absorbing film shows, Gore's lectures are anything but dull. For one, they're conducted amid a compelling array of film and video footage, photographs, wall-size charts and graphs, and even animation. And for another, Gore is relaxed and energized in ways that might have changed his failed bid for the presidency in 2000.

"I'm Al Gore, I used to be the next president of the United States of America," he quips at the start of seemingly every show -- which he has taken around the globe from Seattle to Tokyo since his defeat. The opener never fails to get a laugh. And as if surprised for the first time, Gore breaks into a Mount Rushmore-cracking smile.

It's easy to see why Gore revels so. He doesn't have to skew his speech to journalists and voters monitoring his every sigh. There are no restrictions on complexity at these venues, no timer light on the lectern.

Thus he tells audiences -- in earnest, wonkish detail -- about the isotopes trapped in air bubbles under the Antarctic ice. (They provide a record of the Earth's carbon dioxide levels, going back hundreds of thousands of years.) He explains how the emissions have elicited a biblical barrage of typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes and heat waves from New Orleans to Bombay. And with wall-size animated depictions of a foundering world, he demonstrates what will happen if the polar caps finally melt: Rising waters will engulf major coastal regions around the globe, including the site of the World Trade Center.

Gore's point about the hallowed Manhattan location: The environment poses as dangerous a threat as terrorism. If all college courses had presentations this evocative and sophisticated, no universities would hurt for enrollment.

But there's more to "An Inconvenient Truth" than impressive auditorium visuals. Guggenheim (son of the late Washington-based documentarian Charles Guggenheim) intersperses the film with revealing interviews and moments away from that lectern. Driving in his home town of Carthage, Tenn., for example, Gore points out a spot where as a young man he totaled the family car. And if his anecdote about his son's miraculous recovery from a car accident felt like a heartstrings ploy on the campaign trail, seen here in context of his environmental mission, its poignancy is restored. It was the "possibility of losing what was so precious to me," says Gore, that made him decide the planet was worth appreciating and protecting, too.

While Gore's onstage presentation tells us nothing new, it has a renewed -- call it recycled -- potency, in light of a growing scientific consensus about changing weather patterns. Even the pro-business, Kyoto-rejecting Bush administration, through its Climate Change Science Program, has acknowledged "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."

Many of Gore's detractors will see him as a loser wrapping himself in the mantle of moral sanctimony. But for viewers of any stripe, there's something perhaps even more fascinating here: Between the lines, "An Inconvenient Truth" is a quintessentially American story of reinvention.

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