In 'Truth,' A Planetary, And Personal, Sea Change

Former presidential candidate Al Gore brings to the masses, with impressive auditorium visuals, his pressing object lesson: Mother Earth is in trouble from greenhouse gases. But it's also a lesson in how to stage a political comeback.
Former presidential candidate Al Gore brings to the masses, with impressive auditorium visuals, his pressing object lesson: Mother Earth is in trouble from greenhouse gases. But it's also a lesson in how to stage a political comeback. (By Eric Lee -- Paramount Classics)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

We're pressure-cooking the planet to death -- and Al Gore has the flow charts to prove it.

"An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary by Davis Guggenheim, follows Gore on his well-publicized world tour, in which he warns audiences that humankind faces dire climatic consequences if it doesn't curb its carbon dioxide emissions. The film also reveals how the near death of Gore's 6-year-old son inspired a personal mission to save the world from greenhouse gases.

We know what you're thinking, but as this hagiographic but surprisingly absorbing film shows, Gore's lectures are anything but dull. For one, they're conducted amid a compelling array of film and video footage, photographs, wall-size charts and graphs, and even animation. And for another, Gore is relaxed and energized in ways that might have changed his failed bid for the presidency in 2000.

"I'm Al Gore, I used to be the next president of the United States of America," he quips at the start of seemingly every show -- which he has taken around the globe from Seattle to Tokyo since his defeat. The opener never fails to get a laugh. And as if surprised for the first time, Gore breaks into a Mount Rushmore-cracking smile.

It's easy to see why Gore revels so. He doesn't have to skew his speech to journalists and voters monitoring his every sigh. There are no restrictions on complexity at these venues, no timer light on the lectern.

Thus he tells audiences -- in earnest, wonkish detail -- about the isotopes trapped in air bubbles under the Antarctic ice. (They provide a record of the Earth's carbon dioxide levels, going back hundreds of thousands of years.) He explains how the emissions have elicited a biblical barrage of typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes and heat waves from New Orleans to Bombay. And with wall-size animated depictions of a foundering world, he demonstrates what will happen if the polar caps finally melt: Rising waters will engulf major coastal regions around the globe, including the site of the World Trade Center. Gore's point about the hallowed Manhattan location: The environment poses as dangerous a threat as terrorism. If all college courses had presentations this evocative and sophisticated, no universities would hurt for enrollment.

But there's more to "An Inconvenient Truth" than impressive auditorium visuals. Guggenheim (son of the late Washington-based documentarian Charles Guggenheim) intersperses the film with revealing interviews and moments away from that lectern. Driving in his home town of Carthage, Tenn., for example, Gore points out a spot where as a young man he totaled the family car. And if his anecdote about his son's miraculous recovery from a car accident felt like a heartstrings ploy on the campaign trail, seen here in context of his environmental mission, its poignancy is restored. It was the "possibility of losing what was so precious to me," says Gore, that made him decide the planet was worth appreciating and protecting, too.

While Gore's onstage presentation tells us nothing new, it has a renewed -- call it recycled -- potency, in light of a growing scientific consensus about changing weather patterns. Even the pro-business, Kyoto-rejecting Bush administration, through its Climate Change Science Program, has acknowledged "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."

This is the kind of victory Gore clearly savors -- though he insists his intentions are not political. Guggenheim isn't quite so coy. He sews into the film an abbreviated sequence of the Florida debacle that left George Bush a winner and Gore a concessional citizen. And he interviews Gore about that painful chapter.

"That was a hard blow," says Gore. "But what do you do? You make the best of it."

And during your slideshow presentation, you make occasional veiled allusions to a certain administration's environmentally challenged policies.

Many of Gore's detractors will see him as a loser wrapping himself in the mantle of moral sanctimony. His supporters will feel a sort of mutual, Cassandra-like sense of vindication. There will also be those speculators who see, in their organic tea leaves, the stirrings of a presidential run. ("Politics is a renewable resource," declares Gore at one point, ostensibly rallying a pro-environmental political movement.)

But for viewers of any stripe, there's something perhaps even more fascinating here. Between the lines, "An Inconvenient Truth" is a quintessentially American story of reinvention. What does a man -- or woman -- do in political exile, especially in a culture so obsessed with success that it insists all "losers" disappear into the ether? Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan turned resounding political defeat into renewed and successful campaigns for the presidency, but there seems to be an unspoken law -- particularly for defeated Democrats (think McGovern, Dukakis, Mondale) -- that they should fade away like old generals.

In a sense, Gore lost bigger than the others: He won the popular vote, only to see it all slip away. But as he lugs projectors around the world and talks about a beautiful future of hybrid cars, chirping birds and mass transit, he clearly believes he's reaching out to a constituency far bigger than the American people. He's waiting for everyone's vote on that.

An Inconvenient Truth (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company