Once in a while, as I'm taking out the recycling or staring through a hole in the ozone layer, I'll think, ``Al Gore should cut an album." It would alert the world that the planet is in serious danger, the way Marvin Gaye's ``What's Going On?" did 35 years ago.
In ``An Inconvenient Truth," Gore does the equivalent, committing his thoughts to film. He may not have Gaye's eloquence or the singer's lush production values, but in an eco-horror show that politely masquerades as a documentary, the former vice president effectively warns of man-made cataclysm.
Urgent but not alarmist, ``An Inconvenient Truth" records the extremely depressing global warming slide presentation Gore has been delivering all over the world. As in his well-researched and highly readable 1992 book, ``Earth in the Balance," he takes his audiences on a journey through the nightmare of climate change. But where Gore the author could be long-winded and self-serving, Gore the screen presence is loose, brisk, and engaging. He stands in front of a smallish audience in an insulated auditorium, often pointing at the charts and pictures on the large screen behind him.
His performance begins with an ode to his newly discovered ability to wow the masses with mock humility and comic timing. ``I'm Al Gore," he says. ``I used to be the next president of the United States" -- laughter, applause -- ``I don't find that particularly funny." From here he offers a brief explanation of global warming, then takes us on a breezy tour through the mess we've made of the earth.
Warming, for instance, has done a number on the Arctic and Antarctic. In a series of before-and-after photos, we see that the snows of Kilimanjaro are virtually no more, Glacier National Park is only nominally so, and the frozen caps of the Alps and the Peruvian and Chilean Andes are drying up.
One chart shows the levels of the atmosphere's carbon dioxide numbers across millions of years. The modern numbers are enough to give you vertigo. More CO2 leads to higher temperatures in the air and water, which of course, induce rapid melting and strengthen storms. Gore reports that 2004 produced the American record for tornadoes and the Japanese record for typhoons. And Hurricane Katrina's power was the result of warmer waters.
As he goes on, Gore cleverly uses scientific fact as ground for criticizing the Bush administration's disastrous environmental record. Aside from observing that recent climatic phenomena in Europe are like ``a nature hike through the Book of Revelations," he keeps religion out of his argument.
But the worst-case scenarios are, in fact, biblical. A scarier Power Point show has never been made about rising sea levels. One set of images featuring maps of Shanghai, Calcutta, and Lower Manhattan enveloped by water is more heart-stopping than anything in ``The Day After Tomorrow."
Gore has given this performance a thousand times, and it's a rare public moment, aside from his handful of image-changing appearances on ``Saturday Night Live," where he seems utterly comfortable being who he is. This folksy, confident, and engaging man seems a far cry from the stuffy cyborg who almost became president six years ago.
He's such a captivating figure that toward the end of ``An Inconvenient Truth" I desperately wanted his reassurance that some of the bad news is reversible. (Gore allows for hope, though not complacency.) That isn't a feeling I've had watching Harrison Ford or Michael Douglas.
Yet for some reason, director Davis Guggenheim doesn't entirely trust the presentation to hold our attention. Instead he insists that we see Gore ``off stage" in biographical interludes that bust up the rhythm of the lecture. These attempts to humanize seem redundant when you consider that Gore's talk is already a scream of compassion.
Guggenheim wants to make it clear that the death of Gore's sister, his son's near-fatal bike accident, and that mythical 2000 election merely refocused and revitalized him: Saving the planet was his first love, and now he's returned to it. But any sentient soul could glean some of this merely from Gore's robust performance.
The personal interruptions are ponderous and cheesy. But they do lead one to wonder about the movie Guggenheim might have made had he spurred Gore to take his message out of the lecture hall and onto the streets.
``An Inconvenient Truth" is galvanizing in its own right, but it would have been something to see Gore try a Michael Moore-ish road trip, to evangelize for, say, better fuel efficiency standards and bark in front of the White House for the president to sign the Kyoto environmental accord.
The documentary brings with it charges that Gore might be using the film as a platform for a 2008 presidential run. This is crass, really. But from Anderson Cooper's CNN show to a recent wishful New York magazine cover story (Al Gore is ``The Un-Hillary!"), the media is happy to explore the political possibilities, while leaving the film's catastrophic ecological issues alone.
Gore, of course, is not out to blatantly self-promote. The planet's collapse is a real ethical and moral crisis, as important as the fight against terrorism, he says. His passion should be contagious; we're talking, after all, about a movie that leaves us with the sinking feeling that the world could end well before 2008.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.