When Davis Guggenheim’s environmental documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” appeared in 2006, it was a widely-embraced wakeup call in which former Vice President Al Gore shook us all as violently as he could. The fact that Gore’s courtly impassivity rarely gave away any deep emotions worked in the film’s favor: The impact came from incontrovertible images and scientific statistics rather than easily-dismissed sentiment.
Guggenheim earned an Oscar, and Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize, but there were plenty of naysayers anyway. Glenn Beck, for one, compared Gore to Holocaust mastermind Joseph Goebbels. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe called him “full of crap.” And Donald Trump gleefully mocked him when the temperature dropped in wintertime.
So here we are, more than a decade later. Gore has taken considerable beatings, and so has the planet. How has each fared? Those are the twin questions that comprise this urgent follow-up, which is more successful when it focuses on one than the other.
As in the original film, we see Gore delivering lectures on climate change that are filled with appalling facts about our global fate. In fact, there is so much to be learned, so much to show us, that directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk seem a little overwhelmed. (They also made the excellent enviro-doc “The Island President,” which shared many thematic parallels with this film but was unburdened by such high-profile pressure.)
Cohen and Shenk take us to Miami, to watch citizens slosh through unnerving amounts of water. We make a detour in Texas, where a deeply conservative mayor has led an unexpected campaign towards renewable energy. There’s a quick trip to Greenland, to track rapidly melting glaciers. It’s all fascinating and terrifying and inspiring and essential. And at each stop, we’re left wanting to know more.
But the filmmakers seem torn, either because they hope to avoid the political heat directed towards the original film, or because they want to distinguish this one with a new approach. So they spend much of the movie trying to build a narrative around Gore himself, as he works to open more minds and bring world leaders into his eco-fold.
This might matter a lot less if Cohen and Shenk didn’t so thoroughly attempt to venerate him. But Gore is not, by any standards, the world’s most scintillating subject. He tries, mightily, to show us his inner feelings. And each time, he fails. So these scenes wind up feeling defensive — unneeded proof that he’s sincere, that he’s effective, that he’s right.
There is no doubt that Gore has a life-altering passion; he just doesn’t possess the personality required to express it cinematically. And that’s perfectly fine: all an activist truly has to do is act, which he does relentlessly. But meanwhile, the movie’s other subject — the planet he’s trying to save — is pushed to the side every time his travails take center stage.
One inconvenient reality is that anyone who seeks out the film is likely to be on Gore’s side already. There’s not much this movie will do to change the minds of environmental skeptics, or of former Bush voters who still think Gore would be a lousy guy to share a beer with. (If anything, they’re proven correct. At best, he might suggest some filtered tap water.)
The former Vice President refers to himself as a “recovering politician,” a claim repeatedly undermined by the movie’s forays into promotional enthusiasm. We see so many people stop to shake his hand that it’s charmingly comical when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau turns out to be just another fanboy.
Gore envisions himself as a defender of the defenseless, willing to endlessly bang his head against a solid wall of entrenched conservatism. That’s our great fortune: with the EPA genuinely at risk, climate change denial now official government policy, and the United States standing virtually alone outside the Paris Agreement, we need his voice more than ever.
But using so much valuable time to defend his objectively crucial work isn’t speaking truth to power. It’s preaching to the choir.