Poor Al Gore. He works so hard at his mission to turn the tide of global warming – y’know, just saving the world ‘n’ stuff – but so many people love to make fun of him. He takes flak from the left for being too centrist (“neoliberal” being the currently popular epithet) or for not focusing on some particular subset of environmental activism strategies (one EcoNews reviewer claimed to be “seething” over the “disgraceful” fact that Gore, a vegan, failed to stump for veganism specifically in his new film); from the center for his prosaic technocrat style of presentation or for the “hypocritical” fact that his work requires him to travel by jet frequently; and from the right for his terrifying insistence that we had all better change our energy-consumption habits if we want our grandchildren to inherit a livable planet. Yes, folks, when Obama knocks on your front door to take away all your guns, Big Al is going to be right behind him demanding that you hand over the keys to your gas-guzzler (if your sarcasm detector is turned off, please hit Reset now). One cannot even mention climate change on social media without being deluged with memes depicting Al Gore claiming to have “invented the Internet” (see www.snopes.com/quotes/internet.asp if you’re curious to know what he actually did say).
So it should come as no surprise that Fox News is already proclaiming that An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the update to An Inconvenient Truth, “bombs at the box office” because it raked less than $1 million in its opening week – in a grand total of four theaters. “Friday to Sunday, the feature grossed an estimated $130K, giving it a $32,500 per theater average, one of the highest for a non-fiction title of the year,” reports the movie trade magazine Deadline Hollywood.
An Inconvenient Truth also opened on only four screens in 2006, and went on to become the tenth-highest-grossing American documentary feature and win a couple of Oscars. Not bad for what was essentially the filmed version of a Keynote “slideshow” that Gore was presenting at town hall meetings around the world.
It seems unlikely that An Inconvenient Sequel will prove quite the groundbreaking hit that its predecessor was, although it’s slightly jazzier as a piece of cinemacraft. While there are still frequent callbacks to Gore doing his environmental dog-and-pony show on little stages, providing a sort of personality-based throughline, the sequel spends less time on charts and graphs and more on spectacular cinematography of rapidly melting glaciers in Greenland and Iceland and shocking newsreel footage of killer storms such as 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan. Gore visits the city of Tacloban in the Philippines, where Haiyan’s death toll climbed to 10,000, and listens to survivors’ harrowing firsthand accounts. It’s powerful evidence of how climate change is already having an impact on humans, fact-checked with just a brief visit to a map showing the storm’s path over ocean waters whose temperatures were spiking at the time.
Policy wonk though he may be, Gore has a genius for motivating his audiences while conveying just enough hard data to support his case for change without making lay people’s eyes glaze over. An Inconvenient Sequel also gives us an in-depth look at his process as a diplomat and a dealmaker, tagging along as he plays a substantial role in breaking the stalemate at the Paris Climate Agreement in late 2015. Unexpected drama arises as the heads of state gathering for the conference are sequestered in response to the terrorist attacks that broke out, killing 130 Parisians. Then the talks themselves seem doomed by India’s unwillingness to forgo the 150 years’ worth of coal-fired development that Western countries have already enjoyed – until Gore whips out his cellphone and starts nudging highly placed people he knows at the World Bank and the SolarCity Corporation. India gets some useful proprietary information on cutting-edge solar-cell technology, the Third World in general gets lower interest rates for alternative energy development and an agreement – not as strong as Gore might wish, but a step forward – gets signed. Even if you’re not at all interested in environmental issues, it’s an illuminating crash course in how international politics gets done – not to mention food for thought on the question of term limits and the potential usefulness of a leader’s long experience moving in powerful circles.
The big irony in the making of this film – directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, although An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim stayed on as executive producer –is that most of the shooting wrapped just before Election Day 2016. Donald Trump has since announced his intention to pull the US out of the Paris accords, appointed non-scientists, anti-scientists and fossil-fuel industry lobbyists to cabinet and agency-head positions, routinely dismisses concerns about climate change and advocates getting the US back into burning more coal. Onscreen, Al Gore acknowledges the many setbacks that his climate change education campaign has faced over the years, but he won’t give up, and he won’t let us walk out of the cinema bummed out.
The movie peppers its lows with highs about how enthusiastically many countries have taken to solar and wind development, and the economic benefits thereof. Gore even takes us to visit the mayor of Georgetown, Texas – “the reddest town in the reddest country in the reddest state in America” – who describes himself as a conservative Republican, but calls it “common sense” that his community now uses 100 percent renewable energy. The movie sends viewers off with a message of hope and recommitment, buoyed by OneRepublic’s stirring, gospel-tinged anthem “Truth to Power.” Al Gore, it seems, remains determined not to preach merely to the choir.