MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Al Gore's new film, An Inconvenient Truth, opens in theatres today. It's a documentary about climate change. Well, actually, it's about Al Gore and his long quest to raise awareness about global warming, an issue he calls a planetary emergency.
The film was produced by Davis Guggenheim and as a starting point, it uses Al Gore's standard lecture on climate change, a slick presentation that includes charts, graphs, disturbing photographs and pithy cartoons. As Gore travels the globe to deliver that lecture time and time again, the film attempts to explain the science behind climate change and why more is not being done to reverse it.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH)
AL GORE: I've seen scientists who were persecuted, ridiculed, deprived of jobs, income, simply because the facts they discovered led them to an inconvenient truth.
NORRIS: We've turned to two our in-house experts to critique An Inconvenient Truth on the basis of both science and entertainment. Richard Harris has covered climate change for many years here at NPR and Bob Mondello is our resident film critic.
Both are here with me in the studio. Good to be with both you.
BOB MONDELLO: And you.
RICHARD HARRIS: Likewise.
NORRIS: Now it's a tall order to make a scintillating film that's essentially based on a slide show. I want to get to specifics in just a minute. But first of all, did the film hold up for you? First Bob.
MONDELLO: Well, it's so much more than a slide show. It's really elaborate and gorgeous and lots of digital effects. And I think it's a pretty terrific picture. In fact, it's the kind of thing I was completely skeptical going in. When you hear that this is essentially him giving a lecture about global warming, you think, oh gosh, that's going to be dry as dust.
But you could hear from that clip we just played that it's a different Al Gore than you're used to hearing. He's more pensive, he's more thoughtful and he's also pretty funny in the picture, which is kind of nice, too.
NORRIS: But he walks us through quite a bit of science and he takes his time to do it. Was this effective for you, Richard?
HARRIS: It was. And I came away from this thinking, wow, it really does take an hour and a half to start to really understand global warming. And I think that's one reason it's been such a difficult issue to convey. I mean I've been trying for years and years. A lot of people have been writing about it and reading about it, but it is a very deeply complicated issue.
He did a good job in the big picture. People quibble about some of the details, but the big, big picture was, you know, I think he got the story across.
NORRIS: The details are important, though, and I want to ask you about some of the specifics in the film. There's a section in the film where Al Gore actually talks about the debate over global warming. He tries to put this debate to rest. Does he essentially do that? Can we lay down the gavel now?
HARRIS: Well it is absolutely the case that carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere. There's no question about that. There's no question that human activities are responsible for that carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. There's also no question that carbon dioxide is capable of raising global temperature. So there is no controversy over that.
However - and this is always the problem with global warming - is once you start to get into the particulars, that's where it starts to get sticky. And for example, one example he uses, the snow melting on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
NORRIS: Very dramatic pictures.
HARRIS: Very dramatic pictures of glaciers around the world, but Mt. Kilimanjaro being one that he focuses on. Well it turns there actually is a scientific debate about why the snow has been melting on Mt. Kilimanjaro. It's been doing so since the turn of the last century. And it may be very possibly because of decreased rainfall up there, not because of increased temperatures. So it's an example of when you grab hold of facts, they start to get a little bit squishy in your hands. I - yeah, Bob.
MONDELLO: What's really striking, though, is watching - he has a whole lot of graphs in this picture. And you think graphs are going to be really dull, but he finds ways of making them really come to life. And there's one that covers 650 thousand years and it stretches all the way across the stage by the time he's got it going. And then he needs to be in an elevator to reach the top of the graph.
NORRIS: This mechanical lift that he gets in.
MONDELLO: Yeah. And as he gets on that, just to cover the last, like, 50 years, to cover how much the carbon dioxide has gone up. And he's making a point that is so dramatic at that moment that I thought, well, okay, this is one of those places where movies really work because it allows you to make something visual.
NORRIS: But did he walk right up to the edge, though, when he got on that mechanical lift? There was a bit of showmanship in there.
HARRIS: There definitely was. And let's not forget that that lift takes him up into the projected future, not the present. But, yeah, I think that is actually what's going to happen with carbon dioxide absent any huge change in global attitudes about climate change.
The real question, is the temperature curve going to follow as dramatically as the carbon dioxide curve follows? And he implied that on his lift system there. But I mean that's one of the questions that is not that well settled in science.
NORRIS: Well, while we're talking about visuals, I want to talk to you about the animated graphics that we see in this film and the other visuals. The projection that Greenland is going to melt away and that assertion is helped along by those graphics. And also that sad eyed polar bear. You know we're not supposed to be laughing about this, but he did have those sort of sad eyes.
HARRIS: No, he looks like the Coca-Cola bear.
NORRIS: He was swimming, you know, in the artic, unable to find a piece of ice to rest on.
MONDELLO: Well, I saw that with a second audience - I saw it a second time - and the audience all went, aww. It is your reaction to it.
What I like about the picture is that it finds all these different ways of illustrating things. And some of those things, actually he gets very animated at times, too. It's worth listening to one of the things he does. When he's talking about the melting of the ice caps, he has a series of really striking images that he's showing you about the cities. Let's hear that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH)
GORE: This is what would happen in Florida, around Shanghai, home to 40 million people, the area around Calcutta, 60 million. Here's the Manhattan. The World Trade Center memorial would be under water. Think of the impact of a couple hundred thousand refugees and then imagine 100 million.
NORRIS: Now we should say there while he's talking, you see a series of maps on screen and you see this sort of blue - it's supposed to be blue water - covering Shanghai, covering the island of Manhattan.
HARRIS: And Florida largely disappearing. And all of that is true, except what he never mentions is how long it would take for that to happen. And the current projections are - people thinking in terms of centuries for this to happen. Still, I mean, losing that much land in that period of time is something daunting to think about.
But projecting it on a current day map of Manhattan kind of makes it seems like it's going to happen tomorrow, which is not in fact scientifically sensible.
MONDELLO: Whereas there would actually be time for FEMA to build the dykes around it.
HARRIS: The Army Corps of Engineers, absolutely.
NORRIS: This film was about climate change, but it's also very much about Al Gore. Was this cinema as catharsis?
MONDELLO: Boy, that's a hard one to answer. I don't know him well enough to know the answer to that. I think certainly when I was walking out of the screening the second time, there were a number of people who were saying, where was this guy in 2000, this Al Gore? Where was he?
HARRIS: And the other question is, it makes it clear in the movie that he became very passionate about this when he was in college and he even wrote a book about earth in the balance before he was vice president and so on. And so I think some people are asking not only where was this Al Gore in 2000, but where was this Al Gore when he had eight years in the White House as vice president? Why didn't these issues get lit up more at that point?
NORRIS: Richard Harris, Bob Mondello, thanks for coming in to talk to us.
MONDELLO: A pleasure.
HARRIS: My pleasure.
NORRIS: You can see the dramatic animated graphic depicting the melting of the ice caps. It's at our website, NPR.org.