If you don't see this movie and take action, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger warns that there won't be any more of those Coca Cola ads with the polar bears. There won't be any more polar bears. There might not be any more Coca Cola, either.
"In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but
The other animals blindly followed Chicken Little and got eaten. Most people don't like doomsayers, whether they turn out to be correct or not. And a lot of people don't like Al Gore. Hell, I don't even like him—even though I voted for him, then cried when he lost the election and built a bunker out of recycled tin foil and stocked it with 4 years worth of organic rations.
You might have been told that An Inconvenient Truth is a must see. Even Roger Ebert gave you his unique mandate. Given the hype, An Inconvenient Truth isn't as overwhelming an experience as you might expect. It lacks the emotional impact (manipulation?) of Fahrenheit 911. Even so, it is a compelling a take on a vital issue, and you should see it.
Facts of the Case
Davis Guggenheim follows Al Gore and documents his efforts to encourage environmental activism. Al relates why he is going to such great lengths to raise this issue, set against snippets of the slide show that he uses to sway audiences. Finally, tips on reducing your carbon footprint are given in the closing credits.
A huge misconception I had going into this documentary lessened its impact. You might have it too, so let's clear the air: An Inconvenient Truth is not about how to save the environment. It is actually about Al Gore and his fervent quest to encourage environmental awareness. This is a subtle, but powerful, distinction that left me with a vague disquiet. It was hard to put my finger on that dissatisfaction afterward. Al Gore could be accused of navel gazing, talking about how "I" did this or how "I" failed at that. Unprepared as I was for the intensely personal nature of the film, it seemed like self-aggrandizement instead of eco-political activism. In truth, Al Gore is being asked by the filmmakers to reflect on his efforts. This documentary is about him and his quest, not a direct incarnation of the slide show he gives to audiences.
This focus explains another criticism I hear levied against An Inconvenient Truth: people think that Al is leaving things out. The same subtle distinction is at work here, because An Inconvenient Truth is not a presentation about the environment. It is a documentary about a presentation about the environment. So yes, he is leaving things out. Each graph is not fully explained. Some tricky environmental interactions are glossed over. If you want to decide for yourself whether Al's conclusions are accurate, you're going to have to get the complete story somewhere else. But you should get the story, and soon. This is a good place to start.
With that misconception out of the way, let's discuss An Inconvenient Truth. Even though it isn't a straightforward A to B to C discussion of the environment, the oblique references and snippets of Al's slide show have plenty of impact. He clearly presents a synthesis of scientific data that suggests a major environmental cataclysm in our lifetime. Al is not the first person to proclaim that the end is near. But An Inconvenient Truth is different in two important ways. One is that predictions about industrial impact on the environment were made in the 1960s, and have been born out since. Trends spotted then have not abated; in fact, they have spiked. Overwhelming evidence from climate scientists, biologists, military commanders, and even insurance executives show remarkable agreement. This is not doom saying for the sake of controversy, but a rational warning based on evidence.
The second important difference is that Al's suggestions are clearly beneficial. Let's say for the sake of argument that the polar ice cap isn't going to melt and we aren't all going to die. It is still a good idea to reduce carbon emissions, prevent the bleaching of the coral reefs, and prevent erosion and fresh water pollution. Al isn't asking you to follow an ideology, he's asking you to stop wasting non-renewable resources and keep the planet viable for your grandkids.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of An Inconvenient Truth—mentioned in both commentary tracks—is how powerfully nature has reflected his warnings. While Al was investigating storm trend data and setting up meetings with levee engineers in New Orleans, a Class One storm called Katrina kept him from the appointment. As we all know, abnormally warm waters in the Gulf ramped Katrina into a devastating hurricane.
Incidentally, I did try to decide for myself whether Al's global warming predictions of gloom and doom are accurate. He cites a meta-analysis that found zero dissenting articles to refute the scientific evidence for global warming. But we all know there is scientific controversy, right?
This might be the most critical point made in the film: the controversy's existence, or at very least magnitude, is doubtful. The media has told us that scientists are in conflict. The government has told us the wool is being pulled over our eyes. But carbon dioxide emissions effects are physics. There is no scientific doubt that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will be beneficial. There is doubt as to the degree of the mediation, or the amount of time it will take, sure. But I haven't found a single reputable scientific article that concludes that fossil fuel emissions are a good thing.
How often can a movie open your eyes to something simple you can do to make an immediate impact? This is a rare opportunity to hear the problem clearly stated, with easy, distinct steps you can take to help. You don't have to be a tree-hugging hippie or a Democrat, and you don't even have to like Al Gore. But if you don't take this easy opportunity to face your impact on the environment head on, your karma will be screwed and your friends will make fun of you behind your back.
An Inconvenient Truth's extra features are a mixed bag. The first commentary is a straightforward "here's how we shot this and the challenges we faced" filmmaker commentary. Davis Guggenheim sounds like every focused filmmaker does when discussing an independent documentary, except he shows enthusiasm for the world-saving aspects of the film. In counterpoint, producers Laurie David, Lawrence Bender, Scott Z. Burns, and Lesley Chilcott are swept up in obvious enthusiasm for Al Gore and his message. If you are on board with Democratic, environmentalist ideals, you'll be fine with this. If not, you'll feel like a fish in a barrel of toxic wastewater.
"The Making of An Inconvenient Truth" is brief and exactly what you would expect, except that it feels padded because there wasn't much "making of" to discuss. They build one large set under intense time pressure, and otherwise the "making of" looks a lot like the feature itself. "An Update with Former Vice-President Al Gore" is more substantial. Al clarifies many of the points he made in the film, taking a more direct approach to discussing the environment. I'm sure he takes no pleasure in the thousands of climate-related deaths that happened last year, but his resolve is now firmer and his points delivered with more urgency.
One extra feature is the most important of all. The DVD is wrapped in a biodegradable mailer, printed with natural inks and shrink-wrapped in corn film, which will sprout Basil when planted. This was not cheap. It was not convenient. But Paramount put its money where Al's mouth is and delivered a green package for the DVD. Lead by example.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The closing credits are hardly the place to put the recommended actions. It wasn't until the documentary proper had finished that I was told to use compact fluorescent lights and to get an energy audit. I think Al didn't want to tell you what to do, he wants you to think about that for yourself. But I'm glad that Davis Guggenheim threw those recommendations in.
You may not realize how deeply embedded our culture's bad habits really are. If you feel a vague sense of guilt when driving to the gas station to buy styrofoam plates, good for you. But our environmental impact is much, much deeper than that. An Inconvenient Truth's greatest strength is that it presents a positive message that we can reverse the trends. See it for that reason alone. Then buy those compact fluorescent bulbs, already.
The defendant is hereby sentenced to years of community service.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by director Davis Guggenheim
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