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Sundance Film Review: ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’

Variety logo Variety 1/20/2017 Owen Gleiberman
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It might be the understatement of the millennium to say that Donald Trump is not about to do the issue of climate change (or those who care about it) any great favors. Yet Trump’s ascendance could wind up doing a very big favor for “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” Al Gore’s winning and impassioned, stirring and proudly wonkish follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth.” If Hillary Clinton were about to be inaugurated as president, then “An Inconvenient Sequel” would still be highly worth seeing, but the movie, which premiered tonight at Sundance to a justly enthusiastic audience, has now been given the kind of shot in the arm that only a seething enemy can provide.

A decade ago, when “An Inconvenient Truth” made its own splash at Sundance (and was picked up by Paramount, a deal that proved instrumental in turning it into a phenomenon), the film may have been “speaking truth to power,” yet there was every reason to suspect that, like too many socially conscious Sundance documentaries, it would wind up preaching to the choir. But “An Inconvenient Truth” was the rare documentary that actually achieved what these movies always set out to do: It didn’t just change hearts and minds — it shifted a paradigm. The movie presented Gore as a charming dweeb professor of dire environmental warning, but it did more than offer a message. It clanged the alarm bell and brought the news. It helped to free global warming from its pesky (and outdated) leftist underpinnings, establishing the issue as a mainstream concern in the same way that Occupy Wall Street would inject the meme of the one percent into the center of middle-class culture.

For those who got it — that is, for those who grasped that the issue of climate change truly is about the survival of the planet, and maybe even the human race — the last 10 years have been a time of galvanizing hope and punishing despair. Both those spirits course through “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which once again features Gore in avuncular lecture mode, as he leads his Climate Leadership Training seminars around the world. But the movie, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (taking over from Davis Guggenheim, who is still one of the producers), also takes the form of a wide-ranging, visually graphic exploration of where, exactly, the planet is now, with Gore as our scientist/preacher/tour guide through everything from surreal weather patterns to the world political stage to the moving issue of photographing the earth from space.

The film opens with images of the Greenland ice sheets melting: tumultuous mountains of white caving in on themselves, and long stretches of scrubby brownish-green terrain where, as recently as the 1980s, there was only ice. Gore tours these areas, and updates other catastrophic patterns around the globe, which are like something out of a disaster movie or a rite of Biblical reckoning: rainstorms that no longer resemble the storms of the past, because they enter an atmosphere so much more saturated that the violent downpours are nicknamed “rain bombs;” people in India with their shoes stuck to melting streets; and the ongoing surges of flooding in cities like Miami that are the by-product of all that Arctic meltdown — the water, after all, has to go somewhere.

Gore, now in his late sixties, strolls through the movie as a jaunty, benign, folksy gray-haired senior pedant, his stentorian tones mellowed with age. If the movie lacks the precise academic PowerPoint structure of “An Inconvenient Truth,” it’s a more emotional portrait of Gore’s journey with this mission — the way that even more than before, it has taken him over. At one point, when he’s discussing how the artificial hothouse Florida environment helped make it hospitable for mosquitoes carrying the zika virus, so that pregnant women were ordered not to come there, he actually gets overheated with anger, and it’s a moving thing to see Al Gore as a Southern gentleman who momentarily loses his manners because he can’t deal with the outrage of how this issue is forever being shunted to the side.

That said, he is still every inch a politician, and when he attends the global conference on climate change in Paris in 2015, he helps broker a deal that has hit a telling logjam — namely, the conflict over climate change between developed countries and the developing world. Simply put, India doesn’t want to commit to using solar energy — it wants to keep relying on fossil fuel — because the West, in its view, had 150 years to build their civilizations on the foundation of coal. And India needs its energy now. Gore gets on the phone with the world’s leading manufacturer of solar panels, and he convinces them to make an offer charitable enough to be game-changing. And India signs the accord.

Talk about a revolution! The most hopeful note sounded by “An Inconvenient Sequel” relates to the newly competitive costs of wind and solar energy, which are rapidly nudging them center stage; that may prove a force too powerful for even a nihilistic fracking fetishist like Donald Trump to withstand. Nevertheless, Trump’s desire to trash global climate-change treaties, like the one signed in Paris (where even Vladimir Putin joined in!), is very much in the air, so “An Inconvenient Sequel” suddenly seems like a more subversive radical-underdog movie than it might have before.

Gore has been talking up this issue for 25 years now, and as the film makes clear, he isn’t tired of talking. You feel he’s got enough wind to power another sequel. What’s extraordinary is that this one, after a decade of global-warming fatigue, feels as vital as it does. When it plays in theaters this summer (Paramount has just given it a release date of July 28), “An Inconvenient Sequel” is likely to be another event, a part of the conversation, a movie that glories, once again, in the incisive power of its inconvenience. Ten years later, Al Gore is still bringing the news.

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