If you take in enough socially conscious documentaries — about the crackup of Syria, the power of the pharmaceutical drug industry, the rise of drone warfare, the machinations of the new gilded age, the nature of processed food, the mass incarceration of African-Americans, the lives of trans teenagers, the mystery of Alzheimer’s — then you know that a lot of them are out to change the world. That makes sense; the challenge of getting a feature-length documentary off the ground is such that it may be impossible to make one without hoping for it to have a major impact. Yet that doesn’t mean that a lot of them do. Documentaries help to create a slow and steady drumbeat of awareness about an astonishing range of issues, but only rarely does one come along that exerts a seismic, game-changing, point-tipping influence.
In 2006, “An Inconvenient Truth” was that kind of movie. It was impeccably well done: a proudly wonky, weirdly gripping cinematic lecture by Al Gore that told the story of what was then still referred to, more often than not, as “global warming.” Yet it was also a case of the perfect movie at the perfect time. The very transition in consciousness represented by the leap from the phrase “global warming” to the phrase “climate change” — i.e., we’re not just talking about a world that’s getting slightly warmer, which sounds like the difference between an okay day in Orlando and a really bitchin’ beach day in Orlando; we’re talking about the entire climate of our planet going slowly but steadily haywire — was crystallized by the extraordinary popularity of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Much of the film may not have been headline news to self-styled activist-progressive types, but that, in a way, was the whole point. The problem with global warming as a political issue is that, for too many years, it remained stuck in the marginal zone of being viewed as a hippie-dippy liberal-left trope: a cause for tree-huggers. That’s one of the lingering reasons why Donald Trump is such a self-righteous, pro-fracking climate-change caveman: He’s still fighting the symbolic culture war of the ’70s — cracking down on the “wimps” he thinks are out to reign in his (and America’s) masculine “energy.” To him, a phrase like “solar panels” must sound like “macramé.”
Climate change, not just as an environmental cause but as a cultural issue, needed to be shaken free of its whole Save the Whales/No Nukes/Greenpeace/hippie roots, and “An Inconvenient Truth” is the movie that helped to nudge the issue across that line of perception. It said, vividly and powerfully: Forget the protest politics. This is science. This is our future. (Or non-future.) The movie marked — and majorly influenced — the moment when a left-wing “elitist” issue morphed into a commonsensical mainstream issue. And that was the sneaky appeal of Al Gore’s Southern-gentleman professor-with-a-pointer anti-charismatic charisma: He was too staid and earnest, too straight and narrow, too enthralled with the numbers-don’t-lie intricacy of his PowerPoint charts notto be giving you the straight story. Even climate-change skeptics walked away from “An Inconvenient Truth” going “Hmmmm…” That was the sound of a documentary making a difference.
Since Gore, though, really did bring the news, pushing it to the center of the mainstream conversation, how could his follow-up bulletin of a climate-change doc, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” coming out eleven years later, possibly have a comparable impact? If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said: It couldn’t. I would have said that Gore’s relevance as a herald of looming environmental disaster had been diminished by his own success. He no longer owned the issue, because we all did. And that would be a good thing!
But when you see “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened yesterday, to promisingly huge numbers, in limited release (it goes wider next weekend), the film takes on a radical urgency that even Al Gore probably didn’t plan on. In a way that neither Gore nor the film’s co-directors, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, could have anticipated, “An Inconvenient Sequel” makes the case for climate change as a fundamental political/economic/moral issue of the 21st century in a way that shoves it right through the teeth of Donald Trump’s destructive ignorance.
If Hillary Clinton were now president, the film’s politics would be more or less congruent with that of her administration. Instead, “An Inconvenient Sequel” plays as a bolder statement: a movie that might have been designed to answer the current rollback of environmental policy — and to address America’s backing out of the Paris Climate Accord, since the film documents, with fascinating on-site political detail, how, exactly, that accord was reached in 2016 (complete with participation from Chinese president Xi Jinping and Trump’s BFF Vladimir Putin).
The pulling out of the Accord was, of course, another case of macho semiotics on Trump’s part: “I’m not going to go to your girly-man Euro garden party. Too regulated!” But since the President of the United States is now a captive of magical thinking on the environment (his plan to take America back to the glory days of coal mining makes about as much sense as returning to the gold standard), we are once again in dire need of a crossover documentary that can demonstrate what the stakes are. And “An Inconvenient Sequel” does just that. The force of Trump turns this movie into an impassioned answer to the force of Trump.
The new film is built around the clear-eyed ornery passion that has driven Al Gore to turn this issue into his life’s work, and Gore does more that lecture this time; he gives you a grand tour of the planet. All the while, he’s asking: Are you — are we — going to deny the knowledge of our minds combined with the evidence of our senses? The movie shows us the melting ice sheets of Greenland, which link up to the staggering recent news report about a chunk of ice the size of Delaware breaking off the Antarctic Peninsula. It shows us the unprecedented flooding in places like Miami — and the storms that, in an atmosphere now saturated with excess moisture, drop “rain bombs” on the great plains. It cites climate-change statistics that are more daunting, even, than the ones in “An Inconvenient Truth,” since the eleven years since have brought us several more of the hottest years on record.
The movie also offers Al Gore’s aging-like-fine-wine eloquence. Near the end, he gives a speech in which he makes an analogy between the climate-change movement and the Civil Rights movement, casting both as revolutions too moral not to be inevitable. His fervor is stunning — at a moment like that, you can feel Gore expanding your vision.
“An Inconvenient Sequel” offers a great many ominous signs and warnings, but there is one change, right at the center of the film’s meticulous reporting, that’s suffused with optimism, and it is this: The development of wind and solar energy is now an unstoppable economic locomotive (forgive the dirty-energy metaphor). You can generally count on money to speak more loudly than liberal sanctimony, and the banner-headline news of “An Inconvenient Sequel” is that the economics of climate change now favor a proper response to climate change. The film syncs right up to recent reports about how U.S. state governments, in the wake of Trump’s bludgeoning indifference to any opinion on environmental policy that couldn’t have come from a fossil-fuel executive, are now taking the lead in shaping policy. They’re doing what makes sense — to save the planet, and to build industries that have a future.