The Little Film That Became a Hot Property
Saturday, October 13, 2007
As cinematic productions go, it wasn't much -- essentially just a man, a message and a scary slide show. Yet, "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's filmed lecture about global climate change, became a milestone, easily the most famous and memorable aspect of Gore's quarter-century of environmental activism.
The 2006 documentary alone certainly didn't win Gore the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday -- such prizes tend to be lifetime achievement awards, rarely dependent on the whims of reviews and box office receipts -- but it surely helped. The film remade Gore's image, transforming him from presidential loser into Saint Al, the earnest, impassioned, pointer-wielding Cassandra of the environmental movement. It also helped push global warming into something more than just a debate among climatologists; it made the issue a water-cooler phenomenon, sparking conversation throughout the Oprah-sphere.
The 100-minute film received glowing notices ("In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review . . .: You owe it to yourself to see this film," said Roger Ebert in his column). It was a modest commercial success by Hollywood's usual yardstick, but it was a smash hit by the poverty-stricken standards of documentary filmmaking. The movie generated nearly $50 million worldwide (roughly half of that in the United States), making it the fourth-highest-grossing documentary ever, according to Boxofficemojo.com, which tracks the industry. (The highest grossing is Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which made more than $220 million.)
The figure suggests that about 6 million people have seen "Truth," which was released in May last year.
Such numbers, though, grossly understate its impact. The film's release and subject matter were the pegs for thousands of print and broadcast news stories. "An Inconvenient Truth" became the rallying point for countless environmental groups -- and the flash point for opponents who attacked Gore's science and his conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels is pushing the Earth toward an environmental disaster. The debate got a second life in February, when the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
"Truth" was still generating waves even before yesterday's Nobel announcement. A judge in London this week ruled that British teachers who show the film must alert students that it contains nine "errors" -- such as Gore's claim that residents of low-lying atolls in the Pacific have been evacuated as a result of rising sea levels. There's no evidence of that, said Judge Michael Burton, but he also seemed to endorse Gore's basic thesis, saying the movie builds a "powerful" case that global warming is man-made and must be reversed.
Laurie David, who co-produced "An Inconvenient Truth," said yesterday she wasn't surprised that it has had such an extensive impact, or that it helped draw the attention of the Nobel committee to Gore.
"I just thought the movie was going to be a big deal," she said in an interview, adding that when she saw Gore give a five-minute version of his slide show in conjunction with the opening of the 2004 film "The Day After Tomorrow," she decided to press for the documentary. "I realized this is the best way to explain to people what's happening. Gore had it."
The former vice president initially questioned whether people would even attend a film version of his slide show, but, "not for one second did I doubt the film would have an enormous impact," David said. ". . . It's the craziest story -- this wonky film about this complicated subject became something people had to see."
The film was really a distillation of a talk that Gore had given since the 1980s. The presentation evolved over the years, but only somewhat. In the beginning, volunteers held up poster boards with information about climate change as Gore spoke. That became a slide show in the 1990s, and in recent years evolved into a computer-aided presentation.
After losing the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, Gore traveled around the world, giving the talk. At one stop in Los Angeles, Lawrence Bender, producer of Quentin Tarantino's films, and David suggested making it into a documentary.
"It certainly helped spread the word" in a way that a traveling slide show could not, Kalee Kreider, Gore's spokeswoman, said yesterday.
The film, directed by Davis Guggenheim (son of the late Washington documentarian Charles Guggenheim), includes personal passages about Gore's life, including his musings about losing the election. Many critics noted that Gore displays an energy and compassion in the film that rarely emerged during the 2000 campaign.
Sandra Ruch, executive director of the International Documentary Association, said yesterday that "Truth" is "an incredibly important film" because it not only spurred debate and boosted the environmental movement, it also demonstrated that a complicated, nonfiction subject could be made into a compelling film.
"Documentaries used to be something for schools," she said from Los Angeles. "They had a different cachet. Theater owners didn't want them. It wasn't because of politics -- it was because of money. When they see that films like this can attract an audience, the pathway is much more open."
Staff writers Leonard Bernstein and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.