Eleven short years ago, multiplexes from coast to coast faced an unprecedented crisis: Moviegoers by the hundreds, moved to concrete action by An Inconvenient Truth, had tossed their car keys into the first garbage can they saw and walked home.
Surely you remember Al Gore’s big screen-enhanced PowerPoint presentation about the threat of global warming. And you don’t recall the parking garages full of abandoned automobiles?
This version of history never happened, of course. And that’s my point: What is a reasonable expectation for a social-issue documentary? Can a movie actually make a quantifiable difference, no matter how impassioned and persuasive it is?
It’s the question of the moment because the man who devoted his life to circumnavigating the globe rallying people to his -- well, humankind’s -- cause (after the Supreme Court handed the Oval Office to his Republican opponent in 2000) is back in local multiplexes this Friday with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.
"We feel like stories are capable of making change, [though] we have to be realistic of what that change looks like,” says San Francisco filmmaker Bonni Cohen (The Rape of Europa), who co-directed An Inconvenient Sequel with husband Jon Shenk (The Island President). “Changing [the viewer’s] behavior, [or] looking at someone or something through a lens they might not have looked at before. Is that substantive? It’s a philosophical question every filmmaker has to ask themselves.”
An Inconvenient Sequel, like almost every environmental documentary -- a genre, incidentally, that didn’t exist 11 years ago -- aims for the sweet spot of galvanizing the viewer with the utter seriousness of the problem without reaching a tipping point of stunned hopelessness. Cohen, Shenk and Gore are extremely skilled at keeping hope alive, offering workable solutions and courses of action to head off the apocalypse. The “story” part revolves around Gore’s ceaseless educational tour, culminating with his on-the-ground (and on-the-phone) contributions to the Paris climate accord.
"I think Al’s position is we’re dumping way too much pollution into the atmosphere. Every day he gets up to end the climate crisis and move the world toward more sustainable practice," Shenk says. "We saw that as film drama. I think Al sees it more as an activist lens. It was our job to try to figure out how to make Al’s day-to-day work into a film drama. We grew up on documentaries and features that had heroes that were up against ticking time bombs and we saw that film this way.”
An Inconvenient Sequel creates the illusion of a verité doc via uncommon access to Gore’s hectic travels, interactions with his staff and random encounters with everyday folks. It doesn’t hurt the film that he’s a celebrity, and people can’t resist asking for selfies with celebrities. Everyone is aware of the cause that he’s known for, and sometimes his cause has become their cause.
That’s the underlying basis for the scenes in which Gore speaks to groups of trainees in various countries. While these presentations serve to supply context and information to viewers of An Inconvenient Sequel, they exist to equip highly motivated individuals with the tools to expand the environmental movement -- philosophically, practically and politically -- in their own communities. Al Gore may have superhuman stamina, but he isn’t Superman: He can’t be everywhere at once.
It’s a measure of Shenk and Cohen’s skill that they successfully camouflage and cloak what is undeniably and unequivocally, from start to finish, an advocacy film, in the globetrotting guise of a man-on-a-mission saga. The deception, which is part and parcel of the entertainment value of An Inconvenient Sequel, is key to attracting environmental agnostics and many other paying moviegoers. Those already on board with the movement and the message will be just fine with the movie’s concluding call to action.
Shenk says, “One thing Bonnie and I noticed over the years of making films that touch on social issues is audiences ask, ‘What can we do? How can we get involved? What do we do with this energy?’” Cohen confirms, “We regularly met people who had seen An Inconvenient Truth and made the decision to change their lives, and work toward a better world in the climate space -- as activists, or running alternative energy companies, or politicians.”
The dominant good-news takeaway from An Inconvenient Sequel is that solar power is replacing fossil fuels at a faster rate than even most optimists projected a decade ago. Gore loves to tout technology as the answer to the problem, as advances in solar engineering and efficiency drive down the price and make the equipment more widely available.
It may amuse you, while you’re watching An Inconvenient Sequel, to observe Gore’s parallel embrace of improved technology to deliver his message in person. The static graphs that dominated his PowerPoint presentations in An Inconvenient Truth have been replaced by fluid graphs and embedded video clips.
It’s kind of impressive, actually, how uncompromising Gore is about communicating the most current facts and realities of global warming in the best available way. Of course, the stakes are rather high, no matter how modest the goals Cohen and Shenk set for their film.
“If we can change hearts and minds on this issue in an incremental way, I feel we’ve succeeded,” Cohen says.
'An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power' opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, Aug. 4. For more information, click here.