When the Planet Is Reality Television

An Inconvenient Sequel is technically a documentary. But only technically.

Participant Media

This is the age of the cliffhanger. It is the age of the plot twist. It is the age that has taught people to make sense of the world not merely with that time-honored aid—the story—but also with stories that self-consciously mimic the serial workings of television. So the recent Congressional debates over the future of Obamacare resolved not just with a vote, but with “the most dramatic night in the United States Senate in recent history.” The recent increase in the bellicosity of the threats exchanged between the United States and North Korea have been understood not merely as escalation, but as “Game of Thrones rhetoric.” The presidency of Donald Trump, a man who was catapulted to national fame with the help of a reality TV show, is itself often interpreted as such a show, complete with heavy edits (“alternative facts”), victims, villains, and an assortment of cast members who are obsessed with winning and decidedly Not Here to Make Friends.

Into that environment—reality, as understood by “reality”—comes An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary about climate change. The logic of dramatic serialization is in one way built into the sequel’s title: The 2017 version of Gore’s Oscar-winning film is, the new one promises, simply the next installment in the show—just another entry in the franchise. (Earth 2: Judgment Day? 2 Hot 2 Incurious?) But serialization infuses the movie in other ways, too: This version of Gore’s original PowerPointapalooza now features, true to its 2017 premiere date, distinct heroes, distinct villains, surprising plot twists, and, yes, a final, tantalizing cliffhanger. An Inconvenient Sequel has a narrative arc. It emphasizes action. It is, like its predecessor, technically a documentary; it is a documentary, however, that has internalized the idea that the world makes its best sense—that the world is, indeed, made most relatable and most recognizably human—as a TV show.

Here are some of the similarities between the original Inconvenient Truth and its sequel: Each film is extremely earnest in its message and extremely TED Talk in its aesthetic. Each stars—and, in a much deeper way, revolves around—Al Gore. And each frames Gore as a kind of Cassandra figure, enlightened and insistent and at this point only possibly tragic. (“Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, ‘What were our parents thinking? Why didn’t they wake up when they had the chance?’” Gore says, gravely, in An Inconvenient Truth. In An Inconvenient Sequel, the message is similar, but the tone is not: “What were you thinking?” Gore yells, angrily, on behalf of those future generations, at climate deniers and also, one suspects, at human complacency. “Couldn’t you hear what the scientists were saying? Couldn’t you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?”)

Perhaps above all, both films are trying to navigate the challenge that any such project—about a slow-moving tragedy, about a systemic and widespread phenomenon—will need to: To make the stakes palpable. To make the problem real for people, not just intellectually but emotionally. To take numbers and charts and graphs and carbon-emissions statistics and present them in such a way that a viewer will feel them, not just in her mind but in her gut. The truths Gore is talking about, after all, are so omnipresent as to be—or at least to threaten to be—invisible. They’re in the air we breathe and the water we drink and in the chill of an over-cooled office. They are lurking in all those delightful memes that came from the footage of Planet Earth II. They have transformed even that most conventionally dull of conversation topics—the weather—into something fraught and political and dangerous. They have also given way to a paradox: These things are so intimate they can, in fact, feel distant.

An Inconvenient Truth met its intrinsic challenge—to humanize climate change—by focusing on the work of one particular human: Al Gore. In the original film, Gore is a Virgil figure, describing the inferno he hopes to prevent. He guides viewers, armed with a slide deck and an earnest conviction in the power of persuasion, through the climate-change data that scientists have been gathering over the decades. Gore, in all this, is certainly a character, in the narrative sense. His tour of an imperiled planet is interwoven with a tour through his own recent history: the car accident that nearly took his young son’s life and made him question his priorities and his purpose; the loss of his sister, to lung cancer; the loss of the presidency, to George W. Bush; the mockery he endured at the hands of his fellow politicians. (“This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme,” George H.W. Bush put it in one speech, “we’ll be up to our necks in owls and out of work for every American.”)

And yet Gore, for the most part, plays the part of the messenger in An Inconvenient Truth. His own stories of loss and (potential) redemption cannily mirror the broader message Gore is attempting to send with the film itself: that humanity, too, can be redeemed. That we have had setbacks, yes, and struggles, yes, but we can move beyond them. We can be better. The tone of An Inconvenient Truth is somber—with all its dire statistics and sober warnings, it is the spiritual precursor of the recent New York article, “The Uninhabitable Earth”—and yet its upshot is decidedly optimistic: Change (for now) is still possible, An Inconvenient Truth insists. Humans, sufficiently enlightened and sufficiently committed, can shift the planet’s fate. They can move the tides, quite literally.

An Inconvenient Truth also adhered to the logic of the documentary, as a form: It had a distinctly participatory element to it. (It, like its sequel, was produced by the social-change-oriented production company named, fittingly enough, Participant Media.) This was a film that was rendered, in spirit and occasionally in practice, in the second person; its audience was part of the story. It was attempting to talk with people rather than at them. “Are you ready to change the way you live?” the film asked, in text rendered against a stark-black screen, at its conclusion. It continued: “The climate crisis can be solved. … You can reduce your carbon emissions. ... If you believe in prayer, pray that people will find the strength to change. … Encourage everyone you know to see this movie. … Learn as much as you can about the climate crisis. … Then put your knowledge into action.”

An Inconvenient Sequel concludes with a similar call to arms. (“Use your voice, … Convince your town/city/school to convert to 100-percent renewable energy. … Because your works depends on it.”) There’s a hashtag now, of course—#beinconvenient—and at the very end a reminder that Gore, in true TED Talk form, has converted his slide show into a 10-minute version that can be easily shared with anyone who doubts the veracity or the severity of global climate change. That all makes for a rather jarring ending, though, because An Inconvenient Sequel is for the most part decidedly third-person in its approaches. This is a story in the most Campbellian and conventional sense. It has distinct heroes (Gore, and Gore’s colleagues) and villains (Donald Trump). Its action builds to a single, climactic event (the United Nations’s conference on climate change, held in Paris in late 2015). It understands itself as a single episode in an ongoing saga. And: It is not so much making a case as it is simply telling a story. It is, in its own way, not here to make friends.

And what that means, as will be the case with any reality TV show, is a filtering of facts to fit the show’s established narrative conceits. We see Gore at the Paris talks, acting the world leader even though, technically, he is not one. (It would be decidedly awkward to have a protagonist who is not, also, the star.) We see the actual U.S. president, Barack Obama, who delivered a rousing speech at the conference, effectively sidelined from the drama. But we get in the president’s place a montage of behind-the-scenes policymaking starring Al Gore: Gore, talking with representatives from India about their economic objections to carbon-emissions regulations. Gore, on the phone with Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary and chief economist of the World Bank, discussing ways to negotiate with India. Gore, on the phone with the investment banker Colin le Duc, sharing his plan to ask Elon Musk for solar-energy technology (“Elon has a record of giving up IP,” Gore notes, correctly). If Hollywood were in the practice of giving credits to inanimate objects, Al Gore’s iPhone might be listed as An Inconvenient Sequel’s guest star.

This emphasis on Gore as a journeying hero—and, with it, inevitably, this emphasis on the dealings of the powerful—is, in a sense, simply another instance of an Inconvenient film using the former vice president to mirror its broader message: Individual action can do only so much to solve the problem, the sequel, older and wiser and more jaded than the original, admits. The film’s subtitle, Truth to Power, ostensibly refers to resistance against the presidential administration that removed the U.S. from the agreement Gore (along with so many others) fought for in Paris. As the film plays out, though, the line also comes to refer, ironically, to Gore himself: What is Gore, after all, if not powerful? What is Gore doing, in those cheerily lit conference rooms and chauffeured European automobiles, if not exercising a kind of power that is not technically governmental, but that is extremely government-adjacent? Gore name-drops “Elon”; at the screening I attended, that elicited some audible groans.

But this is a film that trusts in its tropes, and one is not to meant to question Gore or his place in the world, physical or otherwise. An Inconvenient Sequel is not presented as a conversation-starter, after all, in the manner of the original; it is presented as a story to take or leave—a reality that has been captured and edited and filtered. Al Gore is the Bachelor, on his journey to happily ever after. He is the baker who has been honing his recipe for decades. He is the survivor.  He is the voice.

And Donald Trump, on the other hand—who appears only briefly, mostly through soundbites Gore listens to, stony-faced, as he stares out of a window into the middle distance—is the villain. He is, in this set-up, the guy who will ally with you and then betray you at Tribal Council. The guy who will steal your pea puree. The guy who is very much not here for the right reasons.

Which are all, to an extent, fair characterizations. Future generations very likely will judge Al Gore to be on the right side of our shared physical history, and Trump to be on the wrong. And climate policy itself, after all, as my colleague Robinson Meyer put it, “is made through diplomacy, international investments, and the aloof professionalism of the global business class”—and those are, collectively, “one of our best methods for actually solving (or, at least, managing) climate change.” You can in that way read An Inconvenient Sequel as a work of climate-focused realpolitik: a man and a mission, the former bending to the demands of the latter.

But you can also read An Inconvenient Sequel as unintentionally cynical. Tempered is the grassroots, activist spirit that accounts for much of the original’s box office success, not to mention its political and cultural impact. Tempered, too, is the sense that the audience here is not just an audience, but a potential collective actor—a potential participant in the story itself. (An Inconvenient Truth closes its many calls to action—reduce your carbon emissions, learn as much as you can about the climate crisis, then put your knowledge into action—with a proverb: “When you pray, move your feet.”) The sequel nods to all that (#beinconvenient); for the most part, though, it is awash in weariness. The fire of the original has been doused with frustration. The film, reflecting that, is more interested in storytelling than in conversation-starting.

That’s the thing about television: It asks extremely little of its viewers. It’s inviting in that way. It’s entertaining in that way. It conceives of life as a spectacle—full of heroes and villains and twists and turns—and is content simply to present its version of life to you, a neatly contained little story in a neatly contained little box, for as long as you’d enjoy the presentation. The TV won’t judge you if, after a long day at work, you come home and watch it for hours on end. The TV is nothing if not patient. The TV has all the time in the world. The question—and the real cliffhanger—is whether its viewers do, as well.