Six years after his loss in one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, An Inconvenient Truth initiated something akin to a comeback tour for former Vice President Al Gore. Using his still-existent though waning star power, Gore reclaimed a space for himself on the national stage by drawing attention to the vital issue of climate change. While the dire warnings throughout An Inconvenient Truth failed to prevent many of the increasingly violent environmental disasters it accurately predicted, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary was critical in bringing the conversation about climate change to the forefront of our political discourse.
Less than two months after President Donald J. Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, the release of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power seems perfectly timed to provoke a similar response as its predecessor. And when it sticks to its core message about the damage climate change has and will continue to wreak, the film is undeniably forceful in communicating its message. Unfortunately, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk refuse to allow the strengths of their film’s arguments to drive the narrative. While the visual style of An Inconvenient Sequel is far more cinematic than the glorified PowerPoint aesthetics of Guggenheim’s film, its tendency to shift focus away from facts and toward Gore’s personal Sisyphusian struggles makes it often feel more like a personal profile than a work of politically charged activism.
The shadow of the 2000 election, an all but unspoken curse that’s led Gore to repeatedly refer to himself as a “recovering politician,” looms large in the background. In its constant attempts to pat Gore on the back for his efforts and lend legitimacy to his self-aggrandizing proclamations of martyrdom, An Inconvenient Sequel bends uncomfortably toward solipsistic portraiture as it invites us to both pity and be in awe of Gore. To be fair, Gore is working tirelessly in pursuit of a worthy cause, but an uncomfortable amount of the film’s time and efforts appear to be in service of Gore’s still-delicate ego rather than extrapolating on the many ideas and barriers to change it touches on.
At several points, Gore discusses how those working to curb the effects of climate change tend to swing from hope to despair and back again. The film is at its most bracing when tracking the collision of these emotions across climate changes and catastrophes. Our increasing reliance on wind and solar energy, along with their rapidly decreasing costs, is juxtaposed with a discussion of the fossil fuel conglomerates that are surreptitiously making it harder for individuals, businesses, and even states to implement renewable energy. Climate change’s penchant for destabilizing smaller, less powerful nations is contrasted by an alliance which Gore helped broker between political and corporate interests in order to finalize the Paris Agreement. Even Gore’s belief that democracy is the only hope of solving the environmental crisis is met with his admission that democracy itself has been hacked.
During the brief sequences when An Inconvenient Sequel accepts and deals with these contradictions, it’s surprisingly raw in its admittance that solutions to the myriad contributing factors to climate change are not only complex but also, often, elusive. And yet rather than attempting to lay out a detailed, realistic path to improvement, the film cuts to scenes like Gore waxing nostalgic about finally making it to the same Meet the Press stage that his father was on decades prior, or his reading his daughter’s childhood pro/con list of why he should/shouldn’t run for president.
These perpetual attempts to humanize Gore are built in to foster trust in his beliefs but are usually transparent in their unbridled and excessive adulation of the man. This approach is particularly misguided as the film’s central arguments are based on data and scientific fact rather than belief or faith in any individual. While viewers who were open to the information presented in An Inconvenient Truth will still find plenty to nod along to in the sequel, it’s difficult to see how the film will reach those who choose to ignore or distrust scientific consensus. In a world where truth has lost its meaning, maybe speaking truth to power isn’t good enough anymore, especially when that truth is muddled by its designated emissary’s own uncouth grandstanding.