By Ray Pride
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power” takes up former Vice President Al Gore’s climate activism around the world in the decade-plus since the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” Their largely vérité approach, combined with a quiet but assured visual style, gracefully captures their subject and the moment. Cohen and Shenk collaborated on “Audrie & Daisy” (2016) and notably, Cohen produced and Shenk directed “The Island President,” (2011) a biography of the president of the Maldives, the world’s lowest lying nation, soon to be wholly underwater. Cohen says she admires Gore’s “impassioned optimism.” (“The next generation, if they live in a world of floods and storms and rising seas and droughts and refugees by the millions escaping unlivable conditions, destabilizing countries around the world, they would be well justified in looking back and asking, ‘What were you thinking?’” is Gore’s fieriest statement, plucked for the film’s trailer.) Of their rationale for tagging after Gore, Shenk says, “One thing we found remarkable in making this film is that Al’s optimism has no apparent bounds. Every day we saw people moved by Al to the point of deciding to change their lives and we were equally moved. As he’ll tell you, the story goes far beyond what he’s doing—it extends to energy companies, government workers, youth leaders, artists and more, all working to be part of the change. That’s why it felt important to go out with Al and lift the veil on how much is going on, things we don’t usually see happening but have far-reaching consequences.” We talked after the Chicago premiere in early August.
Show, don’t tell. One thing is showing Al as a captain of industry on the fringes of the November 2015 Paris climate summit while talking on a gold iPhone, trying to connect Lyndon Rive, the CEO of SolarCity, who we see earlier, and Indian government members who demand access to bank finance. You don’t detail Gore’s prior investments, you simply observe him working his prowess. It’s taken for granted in a way. You demonstrate it. How did you approach complementing the audience’s awareness, that we’re supposed to know such things? And not giving us every detail like it’s an eight-hour cable series?
Jon: That’s a really good question!
Bonni: We assume the audience is smart.
Jon: Bonni and I have always come from a point of view where you give the audience credit for, y’know, being intelligent and paying attention. That’s the kind of film we’ve always tried to make. Also assume that people can fill in their own dots a little bit, and that’s part of the fun of watching a good movie, is that you’re on your toes. We felt like there’s such inherent drama in those scenes, where Al is trying to figure out a way, where he can use whatever contacts he has, whatever experience he has, to get the deal done in Paris. It involves so much knowledge of the developing world’s ongoing dealings of their place in solving the climate crisis, frustration with the developed world’s lack of interest in paying for it. Yeah, of course, it’s business acumen, and contacts, and political contacts.
You have the fortune of having it happen in front of you in real time, not a contrived circumstance. Shit! Al, can we stay in the room, we’ve got to get our angles on this.
Bonni: Yeah, and also, you don’t have the other end of the conversation, because it’s not dramatized. You hear the sort of whisper on the other end of the phone, but we just had to go with it, because it was happening. What I love about what happens with Al in Paris, and this is a subtle thing, and maybe it’s lost on viewers, but my favorite thing in Paris is that he goes in there, and he’s not really sure what he’s going to do. Because he’s not part of a delegation anymore, he’s not a political guy, but as he likes to say, everybody there are his people. So he goes, because he wants to be of service. He’s a public servant, that’s how he views himself. And so he waits to see. He was actually kind of, I’d even call it, insecure, about what he would be asked to do. But then when [UN Climate Chief] Christiana Figueres who’s running the conference on behalf of the UN… You might have seen her title earlier: she had been one of Al’s trainees early on, in 2007. She calls him to service around the India crisis at the conference. And then you see what this guy is capable of in his post-political life, almost in a mini-drama. He can pull on business contacts, he can pull on political leadership in India and in the US. He’s talking to [then-Secretary of State John] Kerry, and Obama, and also the Indians. He can pull on NGO [nongovernmental organization] contacts, he can pull on his World Bank contacts, the former treasury secretary of the United States. Who else can do that? He’s coming at it tactically, he’s using his creative brain to figure out how he can best use all that he has in front of him to move the needle on this thing. In those moments, you see that he’s a unique character. Not just on film, but of our lifetime.
Casually saying “Elon” in a phone conversation without saying the world-renowned inventor’s last name.
Bonni: Oh, yeah. Elon. “Well, Elon gives away IP”!
Gore talks to people, with people, those who are at his seminars, the people he’s training. But we don’t see him talking to camera that much, explication, basic exposition. Like the shot of him glowering as he strides to the Trump Tower elevator after the election, imperfectly reflected in the gold walls. That’s all we need to know. That’s confident. And in the Paris passage, we see Gore as a passing figure, not quite yet a participant, oh there’s Obama, Justin Trudeau greets him, surprised and happy to see him, we see him traveling essentially by himself with his luggage. You’re indicating, but you don’t come out and say what you just said to me.
Bonni: That’s why I say, I hope that comes across. That was the intention.
Jon: At the end of the day, we wanted to humanize the experience. We want to humanize Al, because when we meet him and talk to him, he’s in a way, although he’s had an incredible life, he’s kind of a regular guy. He has certain things he cares about, he wants to get ’em done, but I think anybody can identify with trying to use whatever cards they have been dealt in life to make a difference, to help their family, to help their community, and that’s what he’s trying to do. But like you said, he’s had this incredibly lucky and fortunate and privileged life. But we wanted to just take that as a matter of course, and get more into what’s interesting: this human drama as he tries to solve this herculean task.
Al Gore in Greenland.
When I talked to Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth,” I immediately brought up images at the opening of that film, of a forest, of a small Tennessee creek near where he was brought up, and how it touched me, how it reminded me of growing up in Kentucky. And he was immediately asking all the right questions about that area, interested, and already informed.
Bonni: He’s a connector.
And it seems casual, partly the slow drawl and the self-deprecation, without quite the tractor-beam behind Bill Clinton in contacts like that.
Bonni: A great, great, great connector.
I like the contrast in the opening, the title sequence, you have the fearsome majesty of ice formations, swirling around them, capturing both essential beauty and their melting, while underneath, you have a welter of sneering voices, from radio hosts, from the hateful Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. You acknowledge their existence briskly, you don’t waste on-camera time introducing them as false witnesses and then refuting them. When did it come to you that you could, not toss or cast aside, but dispense with them in the contrapuntal use of image and sound?
Bonni: Um. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of material to work with.
Jon (laughs): It was funny when we said to Al, do you think we can find just a reel of all the punches you took, he says, Oh that would not be hard to put together.
Bonni: We wanted to nod to what Al had been through since “An Inconvenient Truth,” in terms of being this punching bag because he was the messenger about climate change. And we also do want to create some level of absurdity, where you hear these voices that are just so outlandish, on their own, but when you set them against the beauty and the tragedy of Greenland, it trumpets the absurdity even louder. We wanted to dispense with it quickly, because we’re not really sure that it deserves that much voice, honestly. This film was going to be a vérité film, we were following Al Gore, but we wanted to set the context where he is working. This is the environment in which he is working. We found that clip of Inhofe, where Al is trying to give testimony, and we just thought it was a beautiful, succinct moment with Al Gore, where he pleads to just be able to really tell the story of the environment. “Let me tell you why this is so important to me…” And to us, it was like a table setting for the film. We could give this prologue of where this guy has been, he’s been beaten down by these ridiculous, absurd voices, all the while visiting and seeing how quickly the climate crisis is melting Greenland, and here he is, all he wants to do is tell his story and tell it with intelligence, and get everybody to shut up and listen!
Jon: Yeah. I think that we all, don’t we all kind of want it all to go away? All the bullshit?
Bonni: All the noise.
Jon: All the political discourse, the noise of cable TV. The way we talk to each other now is just so… unpleasant. And the way we have discourse in this country. And I think, in a way, Al used to be a part of that, when he was a politician. I think that clip meant so much to us because it was after he was done with politics, it was 2007, after the film came out, and it was like him, it was a reminder, this guy was no longer part of that political system. He’s chosen another path. So we also liked it from a character development point-of-view.
It also comes back to not even agreeing on the meaning of words and phrases, of nomenclature, their disagreement. It’s like “global warming” was the misnomer heard ’round the world. If only it had been called “climate crisis” or a series of “extreme weather events” from the get-go. That one phrase became the tag with which to mock, the broad brush.
Bonni: I think it’s changing, though.
You speak to that in the film, “global warming” is used in historical context, not as contemporary vocabulary.
Jon: It’s so complex. But again, we really felt like, if this movie could be just as real as possible, to be character-driven, to have audiences connect with Al the human being, who’s trying to get stuff done and try to move the needle, that it would be a dose of truth, of reality, as Bonni was getting at earlier, of vérité, that could dispel some of the b.s. around this. When you see Al go into a room, and he doesn’t really know what the outcome’s going to be, it sets a different tone. It’s not like we’re preaching. We’re showing a man who’s trying to do this good work in the world. That’s our style, and we hope that at least for the ninety minutes that people are watching the film it can be a little bit of an antidote to how we usually discuss this topic.
It is vérité style, and the scenes that occur in Paris two weeks before the summit, during the Bataclan and other attacks, seem off-kilter a little, but quickly assembles to show Gore contemplating, acting, in the moment, reacting to information, quietly illuminating leadership skills.
Bonni: The truth is, it happened! He was there, we were there, we observed it, and then much like other things in the film, it connected some dots. His reaction and the leadership that he showed in that moment, sure, that was definitely part of it. But if you start to think, he subtly says, there are those who start to make connections between the attacks and the fact that the climate conference was going to be taking place there two weeks later. There’s a lot to be said for connecting the dots.
And in one of the extended bits from Gore’s presentation, that is shown forcefully and economically, that nations and economics and money are driven by and can drive refugees and other eddying catastrophes.
Bonni: The drought in Syria, which caused food shortages, and caused populations to move into cities, sparking civil war, then moving refugees up into Europe… a lot of the unrest in this world has the climate crisis at the root of it. There’s that as well, dot-connecting that was very important to us.
There are bold, if quiet images that belie that largely vérité approach, however. It’s a very visual topic, especially since you largely steer away from the slide show approach of the earlier film. Some I appreciated include, obviously, ice exploding, news footage of mass graves being dug in anticipation of flooding…
Bonni: That’s very new.
Five or six or seven shots of people falling down or being cast about by high winds or rain, it’s essential slapstick, and prompts a laugh, but it’s also morbid. Al walking through ankle-deep water in rainbows in Miami Beach and we see him discover, well, those rain boots weren’t high enough. And in the Texas town that’s gone to renewable power, one of the establishing shots for tempo is a stark, lovely image of two rusted power transformers with an American flag waiting to take up the wind—Bonni: Boy!
And another flag later, as well as the follow-up to Trump’s election being a shot of a mirrored skyscraper, with one of its many panels reflecting a small flag that seems broken up, the reflection shattering.
Jon: Yeah, yeah.
Bonni: You got all our tricks!
They’re all simple. Maybe a few frames, a beat held longer. It is a visual film, it’s not an extended polemic. How does that fit into the editorial process once you have a mountain of footage in front of you?
Jon: Yeah, we always joke, we want our film to work at multiple levels. Of course, we want it to be comprehensible, and audiences be able to understand it, but it’s a visual medium. And we want to respect the intelligence of the audience. And we also want to use every aspect of cinema as much as we can, including quiet moments and changes in rhythm and giving people the chance to think, and have their mind meander. That’s a really important part of cinema. We were so lucky to be working with Don Bernier, our editor on this film, who loves and respects footage and poetry and cinema. We would have great conversations. You know, some stuff is building blocks. You’ve just got to tell the story, but then you’ve got to take time for the audience to make their own connection with the emotional aspect of the story. Create poetry, as with the repeating flags. The bookending of Greenland on either end of the film, where you have the deniers at the beginning, then in a way, you have Al almost answering the deniers in the end, in this final interview where he talks about being comfortable with who he is and what he knows, and doesn’t need to listen to all that stuff any more. And he goes about his business. We spent a lot of time writing that screenplay, and we’re proud that people could watch the film multiple times and get different things out of it. So thank you very much for noticing that.
As with the transformers shot, it’s concrete yet suggestive, in movies, an audience doesn’t always note a meaning, but it’s part of that fabric, as you say. An abstraction, a banality, but beautiful. But it is what conveys the electricity to homes and businesses, whether renewable or not. You shouldn’t have to have that reaction, but that extra beat—
Bonni: — will convey. An interesting experience we had was watching our film before Trump was elected. And then our first viewing of it after he had won. All those editorial decisions we had made had slightly different resonance all of a sudden. Even though we didn’t change anything, editorially, until the end, it felt like we had, because there was such a perspective shift. All of those images resonated in a slightly different way.
History tapped you on the shoulder, said “Final Cut!”
“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power” is now playing at Arclight, River East, Landmark Century and Evanston Cine-Arts.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.