An Inconvenient Truth, which we watched last night on DVD, is supposed to be a movie about global warming. But its true subject is Al Gore, and everything in it engineers our deep regret that Gore did not become the American president in 2001. He would have been so good at the job, the film implies. He's so smart, so thoughtful, so empathic and hardworking. And how much we pity him now, shlepping his own suitcase through airport concourses as he tours the world offering up his modest slideshow. In essence, An Inconvenient Truth is an extended opportunity for counterfactual musing: if Gore had been present, would there have been a War on Terror, or even a 9/11? Would there have been a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, or even a Hurricane Katrina? The genius of the film is to connect our sense of urgency about global warming to the tragic loss of Gore--to make the 2000 election a narrative not only of Gore's personal loss, and not only America's, but all of humanity's.
There are passages in the film that actually have nothing to do with climate. Gore's childhood split between Washington and Tennessee. His son's injury at age six. His sister's death from lung cancer. They serve to humanize the speaker, to add to his credibility. He tries to connect them to his own journey toward greater knowledge about global warming and his efforts to do something about it, but ultimately they are there to characterize Gore and make us feel for him. They serve the argument by serving the person delivering it. I wasn't expecting the film to be so much about Gore, but this puts in perspective all the joking at the Oscars about his possible candidacy for president in 2008. It seems unlikely today, but if he decides to enter the race, An Inconvenient Truth will retroactively become a kind of campaign ad. And it has some of the flavor of a campaign ad in the way it positions the politician as a sympathetic regular guy, a good listener as well as a good speaker, and a family man.
The film ends with little messages in text interspersed among the credits encouraging spectators to reduce their carbon emissions, take public transit, drive hybrid cars, get an energy audit, etc. These are the only words in the film that do not come from Gore's voice, and they function to turn the film's ideas away from Gore's collective rhetoric--"we did this, now we can change"--toward an individualistic rhetoric--"you can do this and that." These messages undermine the film's agenda on two levels. First, the solution to global warming, like any massive social change, must come not only from individuals but from institutions, and emphasizing individual responsibility makes the need for political and corporate solutions seems relatively less urgent. More importantly, it takes the last word away from the film's true subject and makes him seem like just a spokesman. In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore is not just a spokesman--he's a character, a protagonist. The film tells the story of our role in changing the planet, but also Gore's role in coming to the point that he made a movie about climate rather than assuming the public office that might have given him the power to achieve something more direct. Whether he would really, practically, have been so empowered had history turned a different page in December, 2000, is another matter, and one the film doesn't consider.