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.


Michelle Detorie said...

Almost every negative critique of this movie is really about whether or not one finds Al Gore annoying. Yes, there is schlocky bio-pic stuff in the movie, but this is exactly the same point the right-wing media has used over and over as a way to discredit the message -- as if the bio-pic stuff means that we shouldn't pay attention to anything else in the movie. And why are we allowed to be snobby about personality-driven issue films and not other aspects of popular culture?

And I have a different take on how the film addresses the Katrina stuff; isn't the point of that footage to show the link b/w global warming and weather patterns? And with Katrina, can we really separate that from urban planning, systemic racism, and politics?

And I thought the text at the end of the movie was there to encourage people to embrace a sort of local activism; I DO NOT think this was meant to say that people should rely on these methods INSTEAD of petitioning for institutional/corporate/goverment responsibility, but more to say -- hey, you don't have to leave and just sit on your hands WAITING for large scale institutionalized change to happen -- you can go out and start making changes RIGHT NOW.

The movie isn't perfect, but since its release the supreme court has ruled that the epa has the right to regulate greenhouse gases and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its boldest statement re the burining of fossil fuels and rising global temperatures. Sooner or later, rush limbaugh and bill o'reily are not going to be able to blow that off by simply making fun of al gore.

michael z newman said...

Michelle, thanks for your comment. I liked the movie. I found it emotionally moving and pretty persuasive (though it's hard to judge since I agreed with it to begin with), and I do think it is having a positive effect in many ways. Partly I liked it so much because I like Al Gore, and it made me like him even more than I already did.

But as for the messages at the end and the importance of activism, this rhetoric is of a piece with the growing ideology of consumerism-as-activism, which ultimately reinforces an individualistic notion of why public issues are significant and de-emphasizes the necessity of collective action. People feel good about their place in the world by buying a certain car or shopping in a certain store. It's fine to feel good, but the responsibilities of corporations and governments are so much greater because they have so much power, and I would prefer to have the film end by addressing them. The crisis cannot be solved by all the hipsters and yuppies who go to see art house movies buying different light bulbs, and I'm only against the implication that this kind of action is of comparable significance to government and corporate action.

My other criticism of the messages is more aesthetic--I think it spoils the unity and coherence of the film to have these messages. Maybe that's a matter of taste.

zp said...

Yeah, pretty much.

The film's aesthetic and rhetoric appeal to a very specific audience.

But this, "shlepping his own suitcase through airport concourses as he tours the world offering up his modest slideshow" - oh, how that suitcase tugs at the heart strings.

Michelle Detorie said...

wow - I would have never guessed that you liked al gore or the movie from that post!

while I agree that consumerism as activism is problematic, it remains true that replacing the incandescent lightbulbs in one's house with more energy efficient bulbs *does* make a difference (as do lots of other little things). Of course I don't think this is the same as goverment/corporate change, but I worry that this sort of cynicism minimizes the earth-friendly/fair choices committed, sincere people make in their daily lives. It is costly, and that's a problem. And people can be snobby about it and miss the point, and that's a problem too. But aren't we forced to be consumers? And if so, should we be discouraged from supporting more sustainable, eco-friendly options as we also campaign for fairer, more responsible, and more ethical corporations and governments?