Bright Lights Film Journal

Eco-Apocalypse and the Powerpoint Film: Al Gore’s <em>An Inconvenient Truth</em>

“The film is a kind of subtle argumentation by analogy, whose success rests on the viewer’s desire to identify with Gore.”

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth may get the honor of being the first widely distributed PowerPoint film (apologies to David Byrne), based on the Microsoft PowerPoint software that has become popular for professional and public speaking all over the world. The film breaks new generic, production, and rhetorical ground.

It is “Al Gore’s” film because he is its hero, and it is based on his passion for the topic. Significant portions of the film showcase Gore speaking in a PowerPoint lecture, showing him at work, traveling in the car, speaking to audiences around the world; showing images of his family and childhood home. Director Davis Guggenheim masterfully weaves this patchwork together, complementing it with Matt Groening’s animation. This hybridity is also a testament to the centrality of computer-driven media in information gathering, distribution, and the conduct of political communication. The film was made to stylistically mimic Gore’s own PowerPoint-type presentations that he has been touring for several years. Gore keeps and adds to a base of charts, graphs, images and video clips on his computer for each traveling presentation. In fact, he uses the “Keynote” Apple version of PowerPoint on his Apple PowerBook, though the label PowerPoint has nearly reached a metonymic-default status for the type of program, something like xerox became for photocopying.

The production team pondered how best to present Gore’s own presentation before deciding to use Keynote. While the filmmakers had no prior experience with Keynote, they experimented with its capabilities to import and export video and images at high resolution, according to co-producer Lesley Chilcott. Keynote gave them one of the greatest assets in contemporary production and circulation: speed. “We were dropping, altering and adding slides less than an hour before we were to shoot,” Chilcott remarked, adding that they would never have been able to keep such a schedule using playback tapes. Cutting between photos, animation, and video clips was done with Avid Software. All this computerization of the film resulted in a production in record time: from June to January, 2005-2006.

What kind of a film-creature did this technology produce? While many critics call it a documentary, it is a generic hybrid: part PowerPoint public-speaking tour de force, part jeremiad, part documentary, part potential campaign film. Most of all, An Inconvenient Truth is a strong piece of political persuasion that begs to be critically evaluated on those terms.

What is this film trying to do? As a piece of pedagogical rhetoric (by which I mean not deceptive speech but well-considered, ethical persuasive discourse), the film seeks to inform and move its audience to action. PowerPoint in public speaking is both a great innovation and a technology that threatens to undermine the ancient art of rhetoric by automating it. Talented public speakers manipulate PowerPoint, turning it on and off, directing their audiences to it to develop or underline a point, but not to take over the entire interaction in which case the speaker disappears into the visual aid. Gore is masterful at this use of the new technology. It is hard to deny that the PowerPoint form of the film makes otherwise very abstract points and arguments seemingly concrete. This is because, as with water levels rising and taking over Greenland and Florida or with polar bears drowning after having to swim longer distances to scarce icebergs, the points are visualized. This is very important. The visual and oral today are gargantuan in terms of public address after the hegemony of print. People can read all they want about global warming, melting ice caps, Florida covered with water, and polar bears drowning, but it doesn’t hit them the way a clip art-animated polar bear foundering in the waves does. Voice-overs and soundtrack compound the emotional effects and direct the attention. And the fact is that fewer and fewer Americans are reading newspapers and magazines, where writers can use the space to elaborate arguments with testimonies of authorities, statistical findings of scientific studies, in a descriptive and engaging style. In addition, newspapers especially are cutting down the space to elaborate such arguments in favor of sound bites and sensationalist appeals, not to mention more sensationalist stories.

But the art of the story here, somewhat sensationalistic and true to its generic precedents, is what can be easily overlooked due to Gore’s seemingly nerdy PowerPoint style and disarmingly populist appeals. The film’s studied shots and soundtrack cunningly punctuate the narrative for the viewer. Narrative? One might not think of a PowerPoint presentation as a story. Isn’t it just a lecture about global warming after all? Not at all. It is a story of blind human extravagance, selfishness, political machinations, and hubris that harkens back to the jeremiad literary and preacher style. Sort of. The brilliance of Gore’s style of address is that it is never that of preaching or intimidating. One never feels like one is watching footage of the Nuremburg rally or a Pat Robertson sermon, or an episode of The O’Reilly Factor.Gore is avuncular. Like a campaign film, this film celebrates Al Gore as one with the viewer/the people, a necessary connection in inspiring change.

An Inconvenient Truth is full of overtures to the viewer for identification. In the film’s style, Al Gore is not some elite nerd-politician who reads environmental science journals full of gobbledygook. Nor will he put social security in a lockbox. He’s the gentle and semi-hip guy who was “once the next president of the United States,” successful for Saturday Night Live and Futurama audiences as well as for those watching his PowerPoint presentation. We are asked to identify with him as celebrity and human being: the man who was to be president, who lost his sister to cancer, who nearly lost his son, and who is then moved to value the preciousness of life and therefore the colossal threat of global warming. Gore gently traces the history of his own understanding of the problem to the influence of a teacher he once had. In this way, the film is a kind of subtle argumentation by analogy, whose success rests on the viewer’s desire to identify with Gore.

At other times, Gore’s populist overtures have nothing to do with global warming, as when he is mounting a kind of hydraulic lift, not unlike those used by telephone and cable line workers, ironically for a ride up higher from which he will point to a map as he lectures to the audience gazing from below. He addresses the audience with something like, “I don’t know any better than you how these things work.” There are close-ups and mid-shots of Gore heroically at work on his laptop, tracking down the forces of environmental evil at work in Washington politics and the global economy. This gives the story elements of intrigue that are raised and dropped but have the function of allowing Gore to look like George Clooney in Syriana for twenty seconds. To be sure, Gore’s overtures for identification are often highly emotional and in the form of barely perceptible analogies. Through the story of his sister who died of cigarette-related cancer, he makes the analogy that global warming is just such a silent killer to which we must awaken before its cancer is beyond treatment. The analogy extends further in that his family had been tobacco growers but made the difficult choice to change their lives and stop growing the problematic herb; so we are encouraged to stop our many self-destructive behaviors and save the world. Again, I think such emotional touches are necessary.

And this is about saving the world. The narrative is also cunning and classical in that sense. Three-fourths of An Inconvenient Truth is developing a problem, trying to move the audience first to believe and feel that there is a sense of doom. Graph projections of pollution, ice melting, sea levels rising, and so on move irrevocably into an abstract but somehow visualized apocalypse. It is the Ghosts of Christmas Past speaking to Scrooge, showing him the future, moving him to act differently here and now. “Save yourself!” is the implication.

But sadly, here is where the film falters. Like so many well-intentioned acts of consciousness-raising today, An Inconvenient Truth spends most of its time demonstrating a problem, but not nearly as much time giving people concrete things they can do together to change policies and actions by huge corporations, governments, and economies that they shape, which really hold the keys to global change. Interestingly, this problem is foreshadowed in the film itself in a scene where Gore is speaking at a university in China. A student asks him what they can do about this, and he responds that they should get everyone they know to understand how serious this problem is. Please answer the hardest question, Mr. Gore. Instead, it’s still not clear exactly how we might come up with specific and practical agendas that we could all organize to see realized. So we go out with more liberal-individualist, not structural, solutions such as recycling, driving hybrid cars, using as little energy as possible, riding a bike, and running for congress (the most ludicrous one, perhaps, in this era of costly campaign finance). In this move to action and clear options for action, the film disappoints.

Lastly, one may wonder if Gore can reach Republicans with this film. He already has the rhetorical disadvantage of being a symbol of the Democratic Party, i.e., the enemy for some Americans. It doesn’t matter if it was 2000 when he occupied that symbolic place most prominently. They still know who he is. Some will certainly never see the film when they hear it features his public speaking. Others who are charitable enough to go hear him may not be finessed enough by his mode of address. Gore would have been better off anticipating resistance from some Republicans with alternative sources of information about global warming, “scientists” who say there’s no real proof that this is a problem or that temperature changes are so much greater in the last century than before. He might have gone to Republican politicians or well-known authorities respected by people regardless of party. Simply saying that the science journals all agree that global warming is real and serious is not enough for many people who already distrust numbers and “facts.” They want counsel from people they trust, people they believe. Those are the rhetorical stakes, and Gore’s film doesn’t engage them that much. Though he doesn’t dwell on it, Gore even mentions that the Bush administration made environmental policy promises they didn’t keep. Of course, eco-critics would probably note that after much fanfare about his environmentalism as Clinton’s running mate, he did not push very hard for environmental policy change. He put his eggs in other baskets.

But if Gore is trying to engage an audience that is not particularly partisan, trying not to come off as a preacher, a nerd, or an elitist; if he’s trying to do something extremely novel with PowerPoint public speaking, film and political rhetoric on a topic of the most pressing importance — he has succeeded marvelously.