Gore and Guggenheim: Speaking 'Truth' to Power

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Al Gore scares the bejesus out of me.

Okay, not him personally. During a meeting in his Washington office to discuss the documentary based on his traveling slide show on global warming, Gore comes across as more relaxed, genial and funny than he ever did when he was in public office. But his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth" (see review on Page 44), is rattling stuff indeed.

So I decide to see if I, in return, can shake up this prophet of doom and gloom whose PowerPoint demonstration, despite its not infrequent touches of levity, may leave many with the impression that the world is coming to an end. I begin by reading aloud from an e-mail sent out by the office of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in response to a letter from a concerned constituent (and film critic pal of mine), urging her senator to support "green" legislation.

"Thank you for contacting me regarding greenhouse emissions," Allen's message begins. "I appreciate your concerns and value your input on this important matter. Although the human contribution seems minimal, I'm glad . . . "

"Oh God," interrupts Gore, cutting the performance short with a weary sigh at yet another example of what he likes to call the "global warming deniers" -- people who may have come around to the acceptance of global warming as real, but who still cling to what he calls the "manifestly untrue" explanation that it's all, or mostly, the result of natural causes.

So, does a 58-year-old former U.S. vice president who's been trying to get the world to wake up to the threat of human-induced climate change ever since he first heard about rising carbon dioxide levels from one of his Harvard professors ever feel like he is butting his head up against a brick wall?

"Just for 30 years," he says, with a laugh.

Despite the resistance, denial and, at times, derision he has met, Gore believes that, with the release of the movie -- and simultaneous publication of his book by the same title -- we may finally have reached a "tipping point," a pivotal moment when the bricks in that wall are finally beginning to crack. "I can even see little slivers of daylight coming through the mortar," he says.

But, he also issues this caveat: "I have, at times in the past, felt that we were on the verge of a tipping point, and I turned out to be wrong."

He doesn't think he's wrong now, mainly because "so many people from different starting points are all changing their minds at the same time."

Well, some people.

As far as Sen. Allen is concerned, Gore has this to say. "I think that, at some point, people like him who say these things that are manifestly absurd, when you actually look into them, will be confronted by their constituents, by their friends, by their family, by their ministers, by people they respect, who say to them in a quiet moment, 'By the way, you should know that what you're putting in this e-mail to your constituents is idiotic, and more and more people who read this may think you're an idiot.' "

Rather than just pointing fingers at others for not seeing the light as early as he did, though, Gore accepts a large degree of personal responsibility for not getting the word out better -- or earlier. "As I have said, I feel as if I've failed," he says, "and I feel as if . . . not being able to get this message across in a clear, more forceful way earlier has had consequences. It has put us at a higher risk."

While denying that his motives are in any way political, Gore isn't completely uncomfortable with another characterization -- the characterization of him as a man on a mission, maybe even with a calling. "If you felt like you, for whatever reason, had the privilege and opportunity, when you were very young, to be given this -- 'Here, this is something that's happening, and it's going to get a lot worse, and here's why, and here's what we need to do. So take this and do what you will with it.' -- okay, you would think, as I have thought, that you had an obligation to try and communicate that as clearly and as forcefully as you could."

The issue of global warming, he believes, is no longer one of science, but has become, like the civil rights struggle did, one of morality. "This is being redefined as a choice between good and evil," Gore says unequivocally. As for his own role in the crusade, he describes himself less as a leader than as a simple "messenger." When it is pointed out just how, um, Christ-like that sounds, he demurs, hemming and hawing with an embarrassed laugh. "I'm sorry. I'm not intentionally trying to put myself in that . . . . Puh-lease ."

This, Gore maintains, is what he was meant to do, not politics. It just took him half his life to figure that out. "At many points in my life," he says, "I have had occasion to do a gut check, and re-examine my priorities. And every time I have done that, what's bubbled up with the most compelling relevance to how I can spend my time is this."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's Al Gore, and that he can introduce himself in the film with the studied cool of a stand -up comic -- or a politician -- as the man who "used to be the next president of the United States."

Gore's director, Davis Guggenheim, calls his subject the film's real "rock star," and the description is not inapt. Mixing facts and figures with jokes, photos, charts, a clip from the animated comedy series "Futurama" (for which Gore's daughter, Kristin, used to write), scare tactics and stirring oratory, the Al Gore of "An Inconvenient Truth" is a master showman.

"I'd like to take credit for his performance in the slide show," says Guggenheim, 42, when asked how much shaping he did of the raw material. "But I can't. I really can't. In fact, there are moments where I would say, 'Do we need that joke there?' I would, like, try to pull it back, and he goes, 'No, you need humor. I mean, he understands performance."

So much so that Guggenheim overcame his initial doubts that a slide show on global warming -- even one that has been given, by his estimation, over 1,000 times -- could ever be made into a viable film. Like a skeptic at a revival meeting, he became a convert to the cause after attending a single presentation in the banquet room of a Los Angeles hotel, sponsored by the Santa Monica-based Milken Institute, an economic think tank founded by convicted-junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist Michael Milken.

"My experience watching this was so profound," says Guggenheim. "It happens only a few times in your life, where you see something where information is so profoundly affecting you that you just had to get involved. I guess the feeling I had was, whether it works or not, I have to try."

It was Guggenheim's idea, he says, to inter-cut "little movies" into the slide show, personal "vignettes" based on "countless, long, tiring interviews" trying to describe Gore's core reasons for doing this. "I said 'you can't make this without understanding why you're so invested.' "

What's more, it never occurred to Guggenheim that the film might be thought of as a political comeback vehicle, or a tool to influence the outcome of the midterm elections. "It didn't cross my mind," he says. Rather, he believes that the message of the film is "just as important for Democrats as it is Republicans," and resists comparisons with Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a film he says he hates for its dishonesty, despite loving its politics.

Any "reasonable" person who sees his film will become "fired up," says Guggenheim, speaking with "100 percent certainty." Yet his interests are more personal than political. "If we keep on this path," he says, "my living room in Venice, California, will be under water. My living room's on the second floor."

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