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Al Gore’s new Inconvenient Truth sequel is a strange artifact of a post-truth year

Vox.com logo Vox.com 07/08/2017 Alissa Wilkinson
© Provided by Vox.com

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power feels like an elegy for a bygone era.

The first press screening of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power was on January 19, the evening before Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. The film, a sequel to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, had been selected to open the Sundance Film Festival.

Even then, it felt like a strange film to be watching, a fact that I mentioned in my 2.5/5 star review. “Gore believes that getting the right information to people will encourage them to speak truth to power,” I wrote, “and while that seems almost naive in an era of deeply partisan ‘facts,’ it’s good to be reminded that someone still believes.”

The movie was anachronistically optimistic, as if it had been made expecting a different election result and then hastily edited to accommodate reality.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. © Paramount Pictures Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth.

Two days after the movie’s Sundance premiere, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer took to the briefing room podium to declare without any evidence that Trump’s inauguration drew the largest audience of any in history, “period.” The next day, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway showed up on TV and unforgettably introduced us to “alternative facts.” A few days later, I realized that differing approaches to the challenge of operating in the realm of truth and reality was the de facto theme of films at Sundance — and that the debate over the most effective ways of speaking truth to power wouldn’t go away anytime soon.

When I’ve seen a film months before its release in a festival setting, I often try to see it a second time. In the case of An Inconvenient Sequel, this was mandatory. In the months since his inauguration, Trump has made it his mission to undermine as much as possible any remaining notions of shared consensus. He’s done this while also directly confronting previous US policy on climate change through Cabinet appointments and, most notably, withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement, where the film’s climactic moments are set.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel © Paramount Pictures Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel

So on a Tuesday afternoon in July, I went to a screening room in Times Square to rewatch the film, which was tweaked slightly after Sundance to include a little more footage of Trump’s statements on the environment during his campaign and a small amount of reflection on the state of climate activism after his election.

If watching the film in January felt weird, watching it in July was outright bizarre, verging on surreal.

An Inconvenient Sequel hasn’t changed substantially since its premiere in January

As far as I can tell, not much has changed in An Inconvenient Sequel since its Sundance debut. There’s a bit more Trump foreshadowing (via footage or audio of candidate Trump talking about his disdain for the idea of climate change), and a minute or two of further on-camera reflection from Gore following Trump’s election. There’s also more text at the end, detailing the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement and calling the audience to action.

But on balance, it’s still the same movie. It’s a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, equal parts a recap of what’s happened since then — both extreme weather events around the world and efforts to move toward affordable sustainable energy — and a reflection on Gore’s feelings about the progress of his cause.

However, it no longer, as I’d written in January, felt “good” to be reminded that “someone still believes” in the importance of facts. After seven months of waking up every morning to new evidence that the word “facts” no longer has an agreed-upon definition, An Inconvenient Sequel feels more like part of the ongoing trend toward nostalgia cinema.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel. © Paramount Pictures Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel.

The movie uses a cinéma vérité style of filmmaking; that is, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk largely operate as flies on the wall. Occasionally Gore talks directly to the camera, but for the most part we’re following him around as he engages in his work: sitting with his staff, giving presentations on climate change at seminars, traveling the world, and even wading into floodwaters in Miami alongside the city’s mayor.

The result is more of a portrait of a man than anything else — but a man who is stubbornly certain of the power of information. Winsomely educating the public, presenting the right data, showing striking images: Gore seems convinced that is the way forward toward a more stable global environment.

Al Gore believes in educating people with the facts. But is he preaching to the choir?

Yet watching Gore present graphs and data to rooms full of people who want to advocate on behalf of sustainable energy efforts around the world, it’s hard not to grow cynical. Sure, they’re applauding — but who wouldn’t be? It’s a self-selecting crowd, right?

And that’s one problem with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. The “power” to whom the film wants to speak truth probably won’t be in the movie theater. The likelihood of anyone watching the movie who isn’t already sympathetic to Gore’s cause seems low.

Besides, if someone did happen to wander into the wrong theater and stay, what would their reaction be? It’s too easy to paint that mental picture, midway through 2017. This data? These charts? They’re biased. They’re liberal. They’re out to destroy the president. They’re fake news.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel. © Paramount Pictures Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel.

Yet you could set aside An Inconvenient Sequel’s highly politicized topic for virtually any other topic and, it seems, feel the same way. The statistics and information are swallowed up by the realization that in our current environment, few documentaries will be able to cross outside their built-in audience. That’s always been true to some extent, but these days, it’s intractable. It’s always been true that if you’re watching a Michael Moore documentary, you’re not watching a Dinesh D’Souza documentary — and vice versa. But what about other issues, like sexual assault, education, immigration, and agriculture? Is everything politics now?

That sinking feeling I felt leaving the theater didn’t have much to do with the film’s topic. I was more discouraged by the shift I could feel in myself: more cynical, more certain that nothing could be done.

Even An Inconvenient Sequel seems a little light on the facts at times

That sinking feeling wasn’t alleviated when I got home and started reading reports that Gore’s own role in the Paris agreement, and particularly in the compromise struck with India, may have been inflated by the film.

According to an E&E News story, the film’s pivotal and most triumphant sequence — in which Gore helps negotiate with SolarCity, an American company, to pass on intellectual property to India to help the country adopt solar energy — is not just (at best) a bit misleading, but also not supported by the results since then:

[A]lmost 20 months after the gavel came down in Paris, there's still scant evidence that SolarCity has delivered anything.

"SolarCity has not come to India, and nor has it signed any agreement at all, and certainly no technology transfer agreement has been entered into between SolarCity and any Indian organization," said Mathur.

When questioned by E&E about why they focused on this moment, but not the larger context, the film’s directors gave a less than satisfying answer — that it just didn’t really fit the film:

"When you experience the Paris climate conference, you're experiencing it through the lens of what Al Gore was doing in Paris, not what anyone else was doing, because we weren't following anyone else," said director Bonni Cohen. "The work that he was doing behind the scenes in Paris, from the perspective of our lead character in the film, was pretty dramatic for us as filmmakers, so that's why we decided to include it in the film."

Cohen and her directing partner, Jon Shenk, traveled to India and around the country with Gore as he drew material for his slideshow, which is as central to the sequel as it was to the 2006 film that won Gore the Oscar. But she said they didn't interview Indians or other participants on their views before making the SolarCity deal a central theme. Nor did they verify that anything came of the transaction.

Reading about a film that left me depressed about the role of facts, data, and information in our society, only to discover how it bent the truth, feels both frustrating and somehow depressingly obvious, like I should have expected it all along.

Selective editing is the documentarian’s tool, of course. But if most of the film’s hope is pinned on this example of cooperation — and yet the details I saw didn’t really line up with reality — then what are we meant to believe? Is there any chance that anyone who advocates for a cause in which they passionately believe can make headway? Or are we destined to be mired in an endless gridlock?

The answer, ironically enough, may be in An Inconvenient Sequel.

What facts still persist in a post-truth age? Money — and maybe some good old-fashioned common sense.

After the Paris agreement section of the film is over, we briefly return to some of Gore’s travels and speeches before the credits roll. In one revealing and heartening sequence, Gore visits Georgetown, Texas, to talk to Mayor Dale Ross about the city’s move toward renewable energy.

As the mayor describes it, Georgetown is the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas, and he’s a conservative Republican. But moving toward renewable energy, as he sees it, just makes sense. His job isn’t to engage in politicking so much as deliver the best value to his taxpaying citizens, and wind and solar energy is the way to do that.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel. © Paramount Pictures Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel.

Plus, Ross tells Gore, he doesn’t need scientists to tell him that dumping a lot of chemicals into the environment isn’t good for people. It’s just “common sense.”

I don’t know whether “common sense” is so common anymore, though the Texan’s declaration was refreshing. But more importantly, the exchange makes clear that money talks. Money, in fact, may be the only “fact” on which everyone in a capitalist society can still agree. That’s because it’s pretty concrete: You know how much you have and how much you don’t have. You may not know how much of it other people have, but bank account balances are never fake news.

If Gore’s statistics are to be believed (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), renewable energy is inexpensive and getting cheaper all the time. Georgetown’s mayor agrees, and is happy to share news of his agreement with the world’s most recognizable climate change activist and a prominent member of an opposing political party.

Cities around the globe are adopting renewable energy sources not just because they want to get their energy from the sun and the wind, but because they want to save money. I grew up in rural upstate New York, not Texas, but I think my neighbors still would have called that horse sense.

Still, this realization isn’t particularly heartening, and An Inconvenient Sequel is still not a great movie — unfocused, a bit suspect in its methods, and (not entirely through its own fault) kind of a major bummer. It’s not up to the standards of An Inconvenient Truth, and its rigor leaves much to be desired.

But it contains a glimmer of hope, too, not just for climate advocates but for all kinds of people living in our messed-up and bitter world. Maybe some truths aren’t inconvenient after all.

An Inconvenient Sequel opens in theaters on July 28.

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