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Non-Review Review: An Inconvenient Sequel – Truth to Power

An Inconvenient Sequel feels somewhat inconvenienced by factors outside of its control.

Much like An Inconvenient Truth, this documentary is very meticulously and carefully structured. It is built around the same core idea of a climate change lecture provided by Al Gore, but it also has a very linear and clear arc to it. There is a definite narrative running through An Inconvenient Sequel, which occasionally feels like a real-life thinking person’s political thriller, only with fewer shady businessmen and less immediately dramatic stakes. An Inconvenient Sequel has a story that it very clearly wants to tell, centring on Al Gore at the Paris Climate Change Conference.

However, that narrative is repeatedly interrupted. Forces beyond Gore’s reckoning creep in around the edges of the story that he wants to tell. Gore very clearly intended for this narrative to be triumphant in nature, to the point that he opens his big presentation in the middle of the film by promising the audience a happy ending. However, time and again, real life intervenes. Disruptions interrupt the flow of the story that Gore has constructed, to the point that the last ten minutes of the film feel like a bizarre postscript, as if real life were directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

It would be churlish to blame Gore for this. In fact, An Inconvenient Sequel is in many ways more interesting for these outside elements that creep into the story being told. Real life is full of complications that are unforeseen and yet inevitable. However, there is a sense that these sweeping dramatic reversals have caught Gore and the documentary off-balance, that they are struggling to properly respond, that they are not ready to veer “off script” to cope with what the world has thrown at them. The result is uncomfortable, chaotic, and surreal. And oddly compelling.

Watching An Inconvenient Sequel, it is very clear that Gore wanted to tell a particular story as it related to the environment. This story ties together environmental and political concerns, demonstrating the reality that these two issues do not exist in isolation. Gore is a veteran politician and a skilled storyteller. Indeed, both An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel make a compelling case for Gore as a charming leading man, offering a personal sketch of a figure who was often criticised for being too aloof or too emotionless.

In fact, An Inconvenient Sequel focuses quite heavily upon Gore. As much as Gore might claim that he is just the messenger, he is also positioned as the film’s protagonist. The opening scenes juxtapose the erosion of the ice caps with archive footage of commentators attacking Gore’s Oscar win for An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s visit to the region is juxtaposed with footage from a confrontational hearing. There is a clear sense that An Inconvenient Sequel wants to cast Gore as a man vindicated by history, his critics exposed as charlatans.

More than that, An Inconvenient Sequel captures a sense of who Gore is as a person. At one point, he reflects on his failure to do more to protect the environment as “a personal failing”, a piece of dialogue that humanises Gore while setting up the conclusion to the film’s narrative arc. At another point, the documentary has great fun with the image of Al Gore riding the subway in Paris during rush hour, as Chinese students look on confused. “Is he still the President?” one student asks, earnestly.

However, An Inconvenient Sequel revels in the idea of Gore as a storyteller. This makes sense, given An Inconvenient Truth‘s development from a slideshow to an Oscar-winning documentary. Gore is very comfortable in conversation, and the film includes some charming self-depricating humour that demonstrates his knack for storytelling. An Inconvenient Sequel plays into Gore’s strengths as a storyteller, offering a narrative arc that ties together environmental and political concerns.

An Inconvenient Sequel is particularly concerned with India, one of the most populous and fastest growing nations on the planet. However, India relies on fossil fuel in order to meet the energy demands of its increasingly industrialised population. Imposing environmental regulations on India would economically cripple the country. More than that, it would slow down development and serve to rob the nation of an economic advantage that had allowed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to establish themselves as global powers.

This frames the environmental debate in explicitly political terms. What moral right does the developed world have to impose environmentalism on the developing world? Many of the European nations exploited these countries to build overseas empires, and many of these nations are still relatively young. If the countries like Germany and France could use cheap fuel like coal and oil to build up their empires over centuries, surely it is unreasonable to effectively handicap developing nations that need to expand and grow. More than that, it is hypocritical.

These are big questions of moral responsibility and political obligation. The developed world built its economic stability off the manipulation of these countries, and profited from centuries without any environmental regulation. Do countries like the United States owe a debt to those younger and more impoverished nations? Would environmental regulations serve as economic sanctions that would prevent developing countries from ever “catching up” with the developed world?

An Inconvenient Sequel brushes up against this idea time and time again. Gore talks about how “Big Money” increased their investment in “denial” following the success of An Inconvenient Truth, outlining the political exploitation of his own environmental policies to serve economic interests. Gore touches upon the role that climate change has played in the mass migrations that have contributed to the rise in xenophobia in the United Kingdom and the United States. Gore is clearly trying to build a holistic picture.

However, even within the context of this discussion, it is clear that An Inconvenient Sequel is not designed for improvisation. The film feels surprisingly distant from concurrent events, operating at a remove from the real world. Gore never makes that connection between migration and politics within western countries. Gore never explores how climate change indirectly contributes to events like Brexit and Trump, and how it needs to be part of a broader holistic solution.

To be fair, some of this feels like a conscious choice. Gore is a very good public speaker, and a veteran politician. He is very careful what he says in An Inconvenient Sequel, and seems wary of being provocative or confrontational. Early in the film, Gore visits a television station in Miami, and very politely warns the host that he will not be engaging with any of the “2016 stuff.” Even when Gore references climate change deniers, he avoids naming them or pointing them out. The Mayor of Miami appears in the film, but the Governor of Florida is a figure defined by his absence.

An Inconvenient Sequel is very clearly structured to build to a logical climax. Gore attends the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and finds himself playing the role of deal maker and power broker, a party very much engaged with all sides of the discussion and looking out for the well-being of the entire planet. The structuring is very clever here. India’s objections are foreshadowed in an earlier meeting. The trump card that Al Gore plays is cleverly seeded in the opening act. There is something very meticulous about this, something very clever and very astute.

However, real life is never as simple as all that. Repeatedly over the course of An Inconvenient Sequel, outside events intrude upon the narrative. Al Gore is in Paris on the night of the horrific attack upon the Bataclan, and the film pauses to acknowledge the sadness and confusion of that moment. Gore’s planned environmental event is obviously cancelled, an illustration of how environmental concerns are drowned out or brushed aside. However, this is just a teaser for the real disruption.

The election of Donald Trump and the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement obvious changes the entire tone of everything that came before. It is a game changer, in that An Inconvenient Sequel has to offer a coda set against the backdrop of the presidential transition. There is footage of Al Gore visiting Trump Tower, even if he avoids engaging directly with the President-Elect on camera. Talking heads debate the political shock to the system.

An Inconvenient Sequel tries to retrofit Trump into its narrative. There is some archive material from early public appearances seeded into the narrative structure, as if to provide a parallel track between Gore and Trump. There is a rather conspicuous shot of a “Vote Trump” billboard in “the reddest town in the reddest county” in Texas. There is voice-over from Trump explaining that “the ISIS problem” is more worthy of attention (and financial support) than the environment.

However, it is also very clear that An Inconvenient Sequel (like much of the world) was taken off-guard by the election of Donald J. Trump. Early in the film, Gore promises the viewers that things will look bad, but that things will get better. Gore argues that despair is a paralysing emotion and that it is important to remain optimistic in the face of impossible odds. The original structure of the film is designed to play into that idea, reminding audiences of the dangers facing the planet before ending on a grace note. Unfortunately, real life intervenes.

The election of Donald Trump throws off the entire narrative arc of the film. An Inconvenient Sequel seems genuinely blindsided by what happened, and does its best to stick to the script in a world descending into chaos. Towards the end of the film, Gore quotes Martin Luther King that the arc of the universe “bends towards justice”, but this cynical postscript suggests that the arc of the universe is also prone to sudden right turns.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” Gore quotes at one point, referencing the renowned philosopher Mike Tyson. However, the issue with An Inconvenient Sequel is that it never feels like the film understands that it has wandered into a boxing match. An Inconvenient Sequel needs to be lighter on its feet, quicker off the mark. The film needs to be able to parry and rebound. It needs to be able to adjust to a political system that has been thrown into chaos.

At the same time, there is something very effective about this, a reminder of how severely the events of 2016 have dramatically redrawn the map. In the context of An Inconvenient Sequel, the political forces of terrorism and right-wing populism feel like the cultural equivalent of those unnatural weather systems that tear throw communities and leave devastation in their wake. Even Al Gore’s documentary has been affected. An Inconvenient Sequel never convincingly explores that aspect of these events, but they hang over and inform the film.

In hindsight, there is almost something naive about the film, something that feels like a relic of an era when facts mattered and truth was regarded as objective. Early in the film, Gore trades words with a hostile Senator, insisting that he is looking for a way to cross the aisle, trying to figure out some combination of words that will allow his opponent to understand the stakes. Later in the film, Gore takes a trip to a Republican town in Texas to demonstrate such cross-party support work is possible. These politics seem almost quaint now, an artifact from a bygone era.

An Inconvenient Sequel is a thought-provoking and powerful piece of work. It is informative and well-researched. However, it feels subject to forces beyond its control, swept up in something much larger than itself. Gore is a fantastic storyteller, but his documentary really needs a better third act.

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One Response

  1. “One day preserving the planet will be profitable. You’ll see!” – Liberals

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