Something interesting is happening in Hollywood. Rather than simply reel out froth and fluff, Hollywood has rediscovered that movies can be conveyors of moral meaning. In an era when the public has rejected the a-morality/immorality of most of its institutions (pedophilia in the churches; arrogance in our government; an unacceptable drop-out rate in our schools, the business of Enron, Balco juicing up our sports, torture at Abu Ghraib…), the movies are increasingly being perceived as an arena where moral issues might helpfully be voiced and explored. A decade ago, who would have guessed?
Hollywood’s embrace of “message movies” was tellingly brought home at the last Academy Awards ceremony where all five nominees for best picture (Good Night & Good Luck; Capote; Munich; Brokeback Mountain; and the winner, Crash) were not just focused on ethical themes, they sought ethical change. Time and again during the interviews surrounding the event, the filmmakers (Clooney, Haggis, Spielberg, Hoffman, Lee) spoke about the moral wrestling inherent in their films and of their hope that even a few viewers might be changed by what they would see.
Such a shift in emphasis from “mere” entertainment toward “message” entertainment can also be observed in the rising popularity of documentaries. Such movies as Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Rize, Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Bowling for Columbine, Born Into Brothels, and this summer’s The Death of the Electric Car (highly recommend) all have found interested audiences, something unimaginable ten years ago.
But nothing has been more surprising – and encouraging – than the warm, continuing support movie goers have given An Inconvenient Truth (d. Guggenheim), Al Gore’s sobering presentation on global warming. Little more than a gussied-up version of the slide show Gore has presented worldwide to more than a thousand audiences since the late eighties, the film has nevertheless proven compelling. Having grossed almost $23 million at the box office after three months in the theaters during the summer of 2006 (and still going), the movie is expected to do at least as well overseas. Here is a science lecture that appeals to head, heart and gut.
In the movie, Gore provides viewers a broad swath of information. Interspersed with Gore’s narrative are scenes of glaciers disintegrating before our eyes, pictures of the current drought in sub-Sahara Africa, and graphs of irrefutable temperature increases (e.g. the ten hottest years in the previous thousand or more have occurred in the last fifteen years). Rob’s favorite included pictures of scientists taking core samples from the ice shelf in Antarctica in order to read the CO2 present in the air bubbles trapped during each year of its frozen existence. Like the rings of a tree the layers of bubbles can give scientists a long history of the earth’s temperature. Perhaps most troubling of the data presented was the fact that of the hundreds of scientific papers on the topic, not one challenged the premise that global warming is taking place, even though 40 to 50% of the articles in the print media would lead you to believe that there is scientific disagreement on the topic.
While an undergraduate, Gore had a professor who first alerted him to the potential problem of global warming. Then Gore took the opportunity, both as a senator and as vice-president, to first hand explore the seriousness of this threat. Gore’s command of the topic is remarkable. But equally compelling to the expertise exhibited is the movie’s heart. Gore speaks of the mistake his family made by continuing to grow tobacco even after they were warned of its clear consequences, only for his only sister to later die of lung cancer.
Gore would have us know that he does not want an analogous tragedy to happen due to our inability to heed the danger signals in the environment. This time he must speak out. It is this sense of calling, and the integrity one senses that goes with it, that makes what otherwise might be merely a talking-head movie so riveting. It is clear to all that Gore believes what he presents and his quiet passion proves contagious. By the end of the movie, viewers long for direction about what they can do to reverse the damage, and Gore does not disappoint.
An Inconvenient Truth (almost everyone in power simply wishes the topic would go away!) has made of Gore an unlikely movie star. Gone is his humorless, ponderous persona as a presidential candidate, replaced with images of a bright, caring man who is at ease with himself, even as he warns us of impending catastrophe. In the movie there is humor and pathos, erudition and integrity. Gore seems the wise counselor (in the style of Jimmy Carter), offering guidance to both Americans and the global village as we seek to redirect our use of energy so that there will be a future for our grandchildren.
One senses that given the critical need to address global warming as a society, Gore has here found his true vocation. Could it be that his other life experiences – both successes and disappointments – were preparing him for this? Al Gore has made it convenient for everyone to be educated about a very Inconvenient Truth. For the half of you who did not vote for him in the last election, don’t let Gore’s politics or his former bland rhetoric cause you to bypass this movie. Its message is simply too important. As Gore himself suggests, “Nobody is going to care who won or lost any election when the earth is uninhabitable.” Better to recall the words of the psalmist: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Ps. 24:1)