Thursday, July 06, 2006

In Theaters: An Inconvenient Truth

Though I somtimes enjoy documentaries, I have trouble reviewing them. It's hard for me to decide whether I like what I'm watching because the documentarians happened upon a good story, or because they present it well. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, Davis Guggenheim's film about global warming and former Vice President Al Gore's lifelong crusade to bring the problem to light, has an advantage. Like Gore's numerous presentations on the subject, the film is an attempt to lay out the case for the existence of man-made global warming, its consequences, and our ability to prevent it, as persuasively and explicitly as it can. In this respect it is a remarkable success, compelling and dramatic and just a bit terrifying. I am recommending that everyone reading this blog see it, if both of them haven't already.

To be fair, I'll lay my cards on the table before the cut. I was pretty firmly convinced that man-made global warming was a problem before seeing the film. The basic "greenhouse effect" theory made sense, Mother Nature has been acting rather pissed at us as of late, and I could never buy the rationale that we shouldn't act until there's absolute agreement among every human being on the planet. But there was still a lot here that I didn't know. If you think my prior bias lessens the worth of my opinion, you probably weren't that keen on seeing the film anyway, but read some other people's reviews before deciding. I'd hate to dissuade anyone.

The bulk of the film is taken from one of Gore's many presentations on the subject of global warming, complete with photographs, films, and all the general wonders of Powerpoint. This is intercut with brief personal reminisces, reflecting on the experiences that have affected his drive and conviction when it came to tackling this issue. What will shock almost everyone who followed Gore's term as Vice President and the 2000 election is how good a public speaker he is. Warm, good-natured and optimistic, he doesn't come across as the stereotypical finger-wagging neo-Luddite that environmental activists have been so often portrayed as. He doesn't even really lay blame at the Bush administration; there is one bit of disinformation which he mentions coming from them, which is only really, in his view, part of a larger pattern of spin designed to frame global warming as an open debate, much in the way the tobacco industry tried for decades to cast doubt on the link between cigarettes and cancer. The Gore family, of course, were tobacco farmers for a long time until Gore's sister died of lung cancer. He parallels this experience, and the shock it took to persuade his family to stop, with the difficulty people have in seeing the link between our actions and their effects on the environment.

The variety of things Gore talks about in connection with this issue is astounding. It starts with the basic fact that carbon dioxide emissions have rapidly increased and with them the global temperature, at a rate unprecedented as far back as we can record (which, thanks to arctic ice studies, ranges well into prehistory.) From here we go to the effects on once-permanent glaciers and ice formations (the snows of Kilimanjaro may vanish within years), on species (expect fewer polar bears and more pine beetles), ocean currents, sea levels, and so on. The argument that this is a normal part of a cyclical, unpreventable process of warming and cooling is well firmly disproved by comparing the temperature rise occuring now with the oft-cited medieval warming period (which was neither as severe nor as rapid). It is worth pointing out that, in the context of this film at least, Gore does not address the argument made by some that global warming may help offset the next ice age, but I'm not sure it's an argument worth dignifying with a response (based as it is on the assumptions that they will occur at the same time, and that since one is an "ice age" and the other has "warming" in the name they'll balance out fairly.)

The facts are scary, and for a while I felt the same near-despair I often do when thinking about this issue. People are unwilling to take action and the clock is ticking (Gore talks about a ten-year time frame), and Michael Crichton novels and South Park episodes are being cited as reasons not to do anything. (I anticipate a debate on the validity and worth of peer review next.) But for a climax, Gore offers hope, arguing that action is possible on personal and political levels, that it does not involve crippling the economy let alone reverting to a Walden-esque existence, and that the fight has already begun in many nations and parts of the US. Not as much time is spent on the solution as I would perhaps like, but Gore is basically arguing for a number of separate approaches from fuel economy to greenhouse gas reclamation, each taking a chunk out of our emissions and possibly putting us back on 1970 levels. At the end, there are a few suggestions from the filmmakers for personal action to reduce our own impact, and a link to a site which I will include after the cut.

This is an unbelievably compelling film, wherein Al Gore speaks with eloquence and sharp moral clarity on the facts of an issue that too often has been framed as a matter of opinion. It is also great filmmaking, informing and entertaining and inspiring. I sincerely wonder if we will see a better picture this year.

Grade: A


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