Al Gore displays a huge carbon graph in An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

The day before Earth Day, the movie that created such a stir last year — An Inconvenient Truth — finally made it through our Netflix gauntlet and onto our TV.

The film is a documentary about former Vice President Al Gore’s “slide show” on global warming, a multimedia lecture which he says he has given “at least a thousand times.” The film intercuts segments of Gore onstage with footage of him traveling, apparently all by himself (although his security guys are not hard to pick out), and he is seen making his way through airports, riding in back seats, working from hotel rooms, making phone calls, and ceaselessly consulting his trusty MacBook Pro.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Al Gore walks down a corridor

On the one hand, this is an easy film to dismiss. It’s a hazy hagiography of one of the most poignant figures in American history, a slickly-crafted public relations piece designed to refurbish an image whose mere name provokes hostile ridicule from about half of the American public. Gore pulls his wheeled luggage behind him like a cross, and he walks down corridors like — exactly like — Bill Clinton on the video screen at the opening night of the 43rd Democratic National Convention. His sinister detractors rail against him in nightmare flashbacks. Something chilling happened to him involving a presidential election and he alludes to it in hushed, dramatic tones. The poor, poor man.

On the other hand, Al Gore has spent much of his life trying to avert the biggest catastrophe in human history. How many other “leaders” can you think of as putting forward a similar effort?

My own two-cent, amateur psychoanalysis of Gore tells me that he is an incredibly smart but intensely personal and idealistic man who is uneasy with political compromise and uncomfortable presenting himself to the masses. In my opinion, we got the closest glimpse of the “real” Al Gore during his 1993 debate with Ross Perot on Larry King Live, and too much of the persona we have seen since then has been a character optimized by experts and makeup artists for public appeal. If that sharp, acerbic 1993 Gore had run in 2000 rather than the animatronic calculation, he would still be president today.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Al Gore on his family's farm

While An Inconvenient Truth is heavy on design, it does have moments which ring very true. One is Gore’s recounting of how his only sibling, Nancy, a smoker raised in a tobacco-growing family, died of lung cancer. It’s a very relatable example of human denial in the face of disturbing science. Gore says he knows that “there can be a day of reckoning, when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly.”

In his slideshow, Gore also pays brief tribute to Roger Revelle, the professor who first interested him in global warming, and who was among the very first to recognize how the “greenhouse effect” is causing global warming. It was Revelle’s temperature graph that crystallized the seriousness of the crisis for Gore, and I know I had the same reaction when I first saw similar graphs in the excellent April 11, 2000 PBS report, What’s Up With the Weather?

I would have preferred more scientific and political detail in this film, but Mr. Gore’s slide show is designed to reach as many people as possible, so the presentation is kept very simple, and is lightened with cartoons and humor. Still, there are some stunning moments of realization, delivered through graphs, through satellite photos of vanishing polar ice, and through charts of ocean currents. Gore also does an decent job of destroying the artificial misconception that there is no scientific consensus about global warming.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Al Gore presents a carbon capture graph

What I liked best about the presentation, however, is that as calamitous as it shows the situation to be, it does not end in defeatism. Using graphs once again, Gore shows how together, through the combined effect of seemingly small measures, we could really stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere. The movie’s end credits appear among a flurry of actions that ordinary people can take to reduce carbon emissions (see StopGlobalWarming.org).

Now, sure, there are those who argue that global warming is already a unstoppable runaway train (a recent study concluded that all of the Arctic ice will be melted just 13 summers from now), but it seems like doing anything is better than doing nothing at all.

The next day, I acquired my first CFL bulb. Okay, it was free on Earth Day from The Home Depot, but it’s a start, right? As for this movie, it was worth watching, so I gave it 4 out of 5 stars at Netflix.

Update

In March of 2008, Al Gore presented a new slideshow on the politics of climate change, which premiered on TED.com as “Al Gore’s new thinking on the climate crisis“:

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