June 14, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

Truth or Consequences

In the Bush era, political controversy hasn't exactly been poison at the box office — witness the mirror-image cash flows elicited by Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ.

But few box office successes would seem as unlikely — or could be more heartening — than that of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's illuminating documentary on global warming. The film earned an astounding $91,828 per screen in its first weekend in limited release, and it continues to court audiences — and discussion — as it expands throughout the country.

Not bad for a movie two-thirds of which consists of a filmed lecture, emceed not by Sarah Silverman but Al Gore. It is, however, a compelling and persuasive lecture, a cinematically preserved version of a talk that Gore has delivered (by his own estimate) 1,000 times across the world.

"I spent the first two hours trying to convince [producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender] not to make the movie," director Davis Guggenheim said in a phone interview on Friday. "I didn't understand how you could make a movie about a slide show."

A veteran television director (Deadwood, 24, Party of Five), documentarian, and occasional feature filmmaker (the 2000 teen flick Gossip), Guggenheim was initially recruited to the project by David — wife of Larry — and Bender, who were inspired to make the film after attending one of Gore's talks. "I guess I was wary of making a politically charged movie about an issue that was already overly politically charged," he said.

But An Inconvenient Truth relegates the Florida recount to a footnote, and attempts to make the issue of global warming accessible to the widest audience possible. Gore, as Frank Rich and others have noted, seems more relaxed than he did in 2000, no longer attempting to cater to the expectations of every voter and pursuing this personal project with admirable determination. It's the kind of necessary, politically unpragmatic stance that one associates with maverick politicians like McCain and Feingold — albeit in this case voiced by someone who's no longer officially in politics.

"A lot of guys at that point would just cash in and pursue huge speaking fees, and make a big book deal," Guggenheim says. "He's telling this thing and not taking fees and just saying, 'I want to get this message out.'"

There has been some carping from predictable sources — according to the review-compilation site Metacritic, the New York Post is the only mainstream publication to pan the film, suggesting (incorrectly) that there's some doubt about whether humans have contributed to global warming.

But Guggenheim says he was actually surprised at how widespread the praise has been. "We've shown the film to a group of evangelical ministers who are breaking with the White House on the issue and telling their parishioners to go see the movie," he says. "We've gotten great reviews from Fox News. For people that go to the film with an open mind, it's playing."

One of the more common quibbles leveled at the film is that global warming increased during the Clinton presidency. It's perhaps a fair point — and one might fault Gore for not being more vocal, although he did broach the issue while in the Senate. Moreover, one of the implicit messages of the film is that global warming won't be addressed seriously in legislation until it catches on as an issue of public interest. To that end, the movie ends with an exhortation to visit climatecrisis.net, which offers a summation of the science behind global warming and tips on how to help.

In the film, Gore shows us photographic evidence to illustrate, among other things, that the snows of Kilimanjaro will be gone within the decade. He also offers a comparison: While 925 peer-reviewed studies all agree that global warming is a real and pressing issue, more than half of the news articles written about global warming inaccurately suggest that it's a controversial theory.

What does Guggenheim think about the prospect of another Gore candidacy — an idea that the film has helped to put back into play?

"I think the speculation is a big distraction from the message of the movie," Guggenheim remarks, perhaps toeing his own party line. "He's the only one who's been able to articulate why this thing is so urgent. He's actually running a more important campaign, a campaign to make the American people aware of this issue."

For himself, Guggenheim has bought a hybrid car and is trying to get solar panels for his house. "More importantly," he says, "I think you go from thinking global warming is sort of important, but I'll deal with that later, to me thinking that global warming is the most important issue of my generation."

He adds, "Seeing audiences go and pay money to see a film and having their minds changed — that's pretty exciting."

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