It’s hard to imagine a less promising film title than An Inconvenient Sequel. Maybe Another Imposition Upon Your Time? It’s clear, in the opening minutes, as we watch him shake off the slights and smears of his critics, that Al Gore is too savvily upbeat a technocrat to give the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth the name he’d prefer, one Rush Limbaugh slapped on a best-seller the year after Gore became vice president: See, I Told You So. With its thorough and horrifying slideshow, and his clear passion for his subject, An Inconvenient Truth persuasively cast Gore as truth teller and doomsayer, the person in the coal mine who points out that those crunching sounds when you walk are the corpses of canaries.
Now, in 2017, the truths he told are self-evident, at least to everyone who doesn’t stand to profit from ignoring them. His new role is a return to one of his oldest, the New Democrat guise he and Bill Clinton ran on in 1992: He’s the pragmatic fixer bringing government and industry together to face — and profit from — problems neither is likely to face on its own.
Since it’s the planet that’s dying, Gore’s not tacky enough to run a victory lap. But when he springs on us, in the new film, a slide reminding us that 15 of the 16 hottest years on record have come this millennium, how can he not look a little smug? Today, it’s not his claims about rising temperatures that seem outrageous – it’s the insistence of politicians and petro-funded think tanks that the issue remains unsettled.
One of the new film’s few laughs comes when Gore, in boots, mucks through seawater on the streets of Miami Beach and then observes that Florida governor Rick Scott, a climate-change denier, won’t even meet with scientists. A more subtle laugh comes earlier, during that montage where we hear audio of the Sean Hannitys of the world calling Gore’s crusade crazy — it’s through those sneering clips that we’re reminded that Gore’s work on a problem yielded the man an Oscar and a Nobel Prize.
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Don’t expect the world to chuck medals at this follow-up, though. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the new film mostly tosses out the filmed-lecture approach of An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, they’ve fashioned something on the model of Michael Moore’s justly forgotten The Big One, the scruffy doc that followed the scion of Flint, Michigan, on a big tour. This one’s the opposite of scruffy but it’s still a somewhat aimless travelogue of meet-and-greets and brand building, lacking the urgency of the 2006 film or of recent climate-change docs such as Jeff Orlowski’s weep-along marvel Chasing Coral. We watch Gore swan about the globe, tut-tutting sadly at Greenland’s exploding glaciers; glad-handing the conservative mayor of a Texas town that has embraced renewable energy sources; meeting with reporters, flood victims and participants in Gore’s own how-to-speak-about-climate-change workshops. Gore tours us through his childhood home; we watch his staff worry over his schedule. His one-on-one meeting with then–Secretary of State John Kerry is every bit as stiff as you might fear, the conversation only interesting for what it doesn’t touch on: What it’s like to be manhandled by George W. Bush?
The most illuminating new footage finds Gore working his phone at the 2015 Climate Change Conference, brokering an arrangement to get a recalcitrant India to sign the Paris agreement. If he can get the World Bank to agree to a special loan rate, and get Elon Musk on board, an American company can install fields of solar panels on the subcontinent. But even that doesn’t illuminate much. The film suggests that the ideas for such deals leap right from Gore’s head, and that they benefit everyone involved, but the directors are tasked with celebrating their subject rather than reporting on him.
The movie perks up when the filmmakers offer excerpts from Gore’s current traveling slideshow. He remains an effective, even compelling speaker, capable of thunder and pathos. Unfortunately, the cutaway shots to audience members quaking in rage, guffawing at his jokes or dabbing away tears prove a distraction, suggesting that the directors don’t believe Gore’s presentation is itself enough to move us.
The film creates a conflicting impression: Here’s a committed wonk and public servant seizing every opportunity he can to combat what appears to be the greatest danger facing our planet. But here’s also a man who would sign off on a movie that so often sets aside his message so that we might admire him and his work. Maybe it would be more effective to say “I told you so,” and then keep telling us.