DRAFT 4/4/07

An Inconvenient Truth
, directed by Davis Guggenheim, running approx 100 mins, rated PG (Australia & US), U (UK), G (Canada & Ireland).

When Al Gore was addressing US Congress on 21 March 2007, insisting that global warming is a “planetary emergency” that requires urgent government action, he was accused of being of a “movie star”. Gore replied, a little awkwardly, “I’m no star. It’s just a slide show.”

It must be the most famous slide show in history.

That slide show was made into a film, An Inconvenient Truth, playing at film festivals and theatres throughout 2006, and now the DVD is available. It occurred to me that this slide show and film are terrific models of communication and remarkable examples of plain language in action.

As a film, An Inconvenient Truth is a slick and very convincing documentary. When I first saw it in June 2006, it seemed to be the first step in Al Gore’s next presidential campaign. But Gore says he’s not interested in that – not now, anyway.

Whatever people may think about the accuracy of the data he presents, even his critics agree that potentially dry, technical material is presented in an interesting and entertaining way – in language and visuals that most can understand.

There’s no denying that this is a comprehensive collection of data about global warming. It’s polished, but not too polished. In the film, Gore estimates that he’s given the presentation 1000 times since 1989, yet he retains a quirky professorial air, pacing and pointing and fiddling with the technology. Gore’s method, though sometimes passionate, is a million miles from the frenzied style of Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, 2002, Fahrenheit 9/11, ( 2004). The LA Times called it a “straightforward, but quietly devastating film”.

The film expands on the slide show by showing Gore schlepping his bags and being patted down at airports across America and around the world. In between segments of his presentation we see snippets of Gore’s private life. We hear that he learned about climate change from professors at college and that it became a life-long passion. We also learn how the tragedies of losing his sister to lung cancer, and nearly losing his 6-year-old in an accident, and of course his failure to become President, have galvanised him in his current crusade. So the film is not all facts and figures about global warming. Director Guggenheim has said that in this way the movie became the story of “how he first learned about it, how he became obsessed with it, and at moments how he felt derailed”.

In the early days, Gore used to give his slide show using 3 projectors and a ladder. After he joined the board of Apple, he enlisted a few engineers and computerised his presentation, using Keynote, Apple’s presentation software.

So how does it rate as a piece of plain language communication? I have some criticisms.

First, as a presentation:
1. Gore goes somewhat overboard with the graphs – at one stage I couldn’t work out what a particular graph […] was showing, and the film didn’t actually explain it. Possibly the most powerful moment in the film is when he mounts a hydraulic lift with pointer in hand and ascends, following the line of a graph showing the climb of carbon dioxide of the chart. It’s breathtaking, but, ironically, it also shows how a physical demonstration is more powerful than any graph.
2. Some of the labelling is misleading……. And most of the captions are in All Caps, which we know are harder to read for most people.
3. Gore skims over a couple of points – important ones [….] – without giving the evidence to back them up. This is quite significant as he prides himself on the fact that he has all the scientific evidence in his grasp.
4. Gore doesn’t actually bring all his points to a conclusion with any practical call to action – it is left to the filmmakers to do that……
5. Gore makes the point that global warming is a moral issue – a question of ethics. This is his “killer point”. And yet everything he says, every point he makes, indicates that it is a matter of life and death – a matter of the survival of the human race itself, to say nothing of millions of individual people. So, ironically, I think this actually weakened his argument for the need practical action. It moves the argument from the concrete, the pragmatic and the self-serving to the abstract and philosophical and the selfless.

Next, as a film:
6. Particularly at the beginning, the film seems a little confused (who are these people?).
7. Its past as a multimedia presentation is too obvious. Too many graphics are distancing, and the effect is not very filmic.
8. The film makers seem to have gotten too close and fallen in love with the subjects of their documentary: Gore and global warming. So objectivity is lost, and that diminishes the power of the message.

But these criticisms do not diminish the overall power of this filmed presentation as an effective communication of complex facts.

The most memorable image? A polar bear swimming endlessly in search of an ice floe. And the most memorable quote? “Political will is a renewable resource”.

 “removing obstacles to understanding and misconceptions”.

Tt &t???

Michèle Asprey
Lawyer and plain language writing consultant
Sydney, Australia