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Al Gore warms up

Times Staff Writer

WHEN Al Gore lost the presidency in a disputed election, it hurt — more than he ever was willing to show, more perhaps than he could show. He told his friends and supporters that it was "liberating" to be out of politics. Privately, he expressed his feelings sparingly: "It was a difficult blow ... "

It was his wife, Tipper, who suggested a palliative. Dig out the old slide show, she told him, and get back on the road. It was the one thing he always felt passionate about: his solo crusade as an eco-Cassandra — started long before he entered politics — to warn about the growing dangers of global warming.

Gore's quest is the subject of a new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which opens here on May 24. His almost-professorial plea to save the planet finds him center stage once again. The straightforward but quietly devastating film is a long way from Michael Moore, and the issue it raises isn't in the forefront of the public's concerns, but many expect it to have a significant effect on the public consciousness.

Meanwhile, some of Hollywood's top politicos have been lobbying him privately to run for president in 2008, raising the tantalizing possibility of a Clinton-Gore showdown. For the record Gore, 58, says he's not interested — at least not at the moment.

Regardless of whether he enters the race, or closes the door to politics forever, the former vice president has clearly found an issue that gives him purpose like no other. Audiences may well walk out of theaters not only compelled to do something about the environment but impressed by a Gore they've rarely seen. Onstage, and in the documentary, he displays a side of himself that never came across during his presidential race: affable, funny, passionate and — at times — vulnerable.

"It's hard to describe it in a way that doesn't sound excessive, but the issue of global warming is something that's always with me," he said recently over breakfast at the Regency Hotel in New York City. "You feel like you are entrusted with a very important message that you have to deliver."

Dressed in a sport jacket and a pressed shirt, he appeared relaxed at a corner table at the hotel restaurant. His day was packed with appearances and meetings in New York, before he headed down to Washington, D.C., with Tipper for an evening screening.

For months, Gore barely has had time to rest. He drinks Diet Coke — constantly. At breakfast, he ordered three refills. All his friends know about this habit. At the screening in D.C., they chuckled out loud at the sight of him on-screen, typing on his omnipresent Apple laptop and sipping the soft drink.

He talks easily about the film, but discussing the bitterly contested 2000 election is still hard. (While his family and staff were morose after the race, Gore tried to stay upbeat. "He was the one keeping us all steady," said longtime aide Mike Feldman.)

"I may write about it someday, but I'm not ready to yet," Gore said. "It was difficult. It was difficult....You just have to make the best of it. It did help me to focus on what was most important to carry me forward and right away this surfaced for me very powerfully."

Through adversity, Gore's supporters say, perhaps he has found his calling. The documentary will make people look at him "in a different light," said longtime Democratic political strategist Bill Carrick. "Here's someone who has been through it, has come out the other side and just wants to tell people what's on his mind without worrying about what's acceptable to a whole bunch of focus groups," Carrick said.

"That sort of freedom he has in the current situation really makes him quite attractive. I don't think he's plotting a campaign right now. None of this, in my view, seems contrived. It's just what Gore wants to say and do."

Gore has done other things since 2000: He started a cable network, joined the board of directors at Apple Computer Inc., taught college classes. But nothing has compared with this.

"When he's excited about something, he wants you to know every single thing about it," said Tipper Gore. She said she sometimes worried that he was wearing himself out with the slide show. "He would say: 'You don't understand. This gives me strength.' "

A 40-year concern Gore's interest in world climate changes dates to the late '60s. Roger Revelle, one of his science teachers at Harvard, issued a shocking prediction to his students: Carbon dioxide, spewed into the atmosphere by cars, coal-burning power plants and other black-smoke polluters, would devastate Earth if left unchecked.

"I was lucky because I had a good teacher who explained and showed this to me early on," Gore recalled.

In the late 1970s, after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, he organized the first congressional hearings on global warming. He began discussions with world leaders in the 1980s to raise awareness about the issue. In 1990, while in the Senate, he gave slide presentations, complete with charts. While vice president, he argued for new emissions standards. Occasionally he brought out the slides at the White House to show to lawmakers, environmentalists and, once, a group of visiting weathermen.

Gore figured lawmakers would be outraged by the climate changes and take action. They didn't. Instead, people started calling him "Ozone Man" and worse. Critics used his interest in the environment against him, portraying him as a tree-hugger.

"I consistently underestimated how hard it would be to convince people," he said.

There was nothing left to lose when he reassumed the environmentalist mantle in the wake of his defeat.

Last year, environmentalist Laurie David — wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David — saw Gore's presentation in Los Angeles.

She and "Pulp Fiction" producer Lawrence Bender — who met David in Hollywood's tight-knit circle of political activists — pulled together a team led by director Davis Guggenheim to turn the one-man show into a movie. After six months of work on the film, "An Inconvenient Truth" was unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival to three standing ovations for Gore and the movie. (Even before the movie ended, several studio executives approached the producers about distributing the film. Paramount Classics eventually won the rights.)

In recent weeks, the trailer for the movie — an action-packed montage of climate disasters — has been receiving spontaneous applause in theaters on the Westside. Gore is swarmed at private screenings and at his continuing slide show lectures around the country. He works his way through the crowd, answering questions, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He shakes hands, cracks jokes and laughs — a hardy guffaw.

"If only he was like this before," said one environmentalist after attending a screening of the documentary recently in New York. "Maybe things would have turned out differently in 2000."

Rebounding on the road Six weeks after the nasty election was decided by the Supreme Court, Tipper Gore went to a storage unit in Arlington, Va., where her husband's papers were stored. She combed through boxes until she found the old carousels and projector.

It would be several more months before Al Gore pulled it all together, along with new images, and took them to a photo shop near his home in Nashville, where they were turned into slides.

The assemblage resembled — as Gore put it — a nature hike through the Book of Revelation: temperatures rising, carbon dioxide levels zigzagging higher, glaciers melting, the Arctic giving way, bigger storms.

Like a traveling evangelist, he began booking free appearances all over the country: in school auditoriums, hotel meeting rooms and theaters. Audiences were drawn as much to the message as to the spectacle of the former vice president delivering the message, sans the entourage he'd left behind in D.C.

He arranged the slides in three projectors, hooked together like a Rube Goldberg contraption. He'd bring along a ladder as a prop. A climb to the top illustrated how much CO2 had increased in recent years.

There were plenty of mishaps. All the slides were backward at his first presentation, held at a college in Tennessee. At another show, he fell off the ladder.

"I think it was at an auditorium in downtown D.C.," he recalled. "One of the four legs of the ladder got partway over the edge of the stage. When I got up on top of it, the entire thing went off the stage. I wasn't hurt and I leaped back up, and I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, you will never forget this presentation.' "

He finally realized he needed to computerize the lecture — an ironic realization for a man jokingly credited with inventing the Internet.

"It was silly that I hadn't thought of it before," Gore said. "It's like that old movie where the family comes out of the bomb shelter and technology has moved on. That's how I felt."

After joining the board of Apple, he sought the help of several engineers. They moonlighted at his hotel in Palo Alto, working late into the night to help him modernize. With the presentation finally in Keynote, he started getting stronger reactions from audiences.

One night, he showed it to a group of camping buddies — a number of them Republicans — at a lake in Tennessee. "Even the guys farthest to the right said, 'I had no idea.' At that point, I knew the show was really connecting."

At David and Bender's urging, Guggenheim — whose directing credits include a documentary on public school teachers and more than a dozen television episodes, including "24," "Alias" and "NYPD Blue" — went to see the lecture at the Milken Institute in Beverly Hills. "It blew me away," Guggenheim said. "We had to make the movie."

Gore immediately agreed, but he wanted the documentary to focus on the hard facts: "It was essential that they craft the movie on factual analysis." Guggenheim, however, worried that he wouldn't be able to turn scientific data into a compelling movie.

The only way, he figured, was to also capture Gore's personal side. Guggenheim said the movie became "the journey of how he first learned about it, how he became obsessed with it, and at moments how he felt derailed."

On the road, Gore continued to update and refine his presentation — which he estimates he has given more than 1,000 times. He incorporated slides of Katrina, fissures in the ice of Greenland, new pictures of Mt. Kilimanjaro with its diminishing snowpack. "In a few years, there will be no more 'snows of Kilimanjaro,' " he told audiences.

Guggenheim worked as director and cinematographer, following his subject around with a hand-held camera. He captured him talking about a tragic accident that almost killed his son and about his sister's death from lung cancer — two important emotional keystones that forced Gore to grapple with life's fragility. The personal turning points, he explained, solidified his determination to stay on track: Unless we stop global warming, Earth's climate could be forever altered in ways that would destroy life as we know it.

Throughout the movie, Gore's fall from politics is abundantly clear: Looking somewhat chunky and weary, he pulls his own bags through airport terminals, and takes off his shoes and empties his pockets at security checkpoints.

Two months into the project, Guggenheim decided it was time to address the election.

They were in a hotel room in Los Angeles, no camera, just recording sound. "There was this long, long pause. And then he says, 'Well that was a hard blow ... But what do you do? You make the best of it,' " Guggenheim recalled. "For a guy who is incredibly articulate and will find the nuance in everything, it was hard to find the words. You could feel how painful it was for him to remember that time. It was devastating."

The response to the movie has been strong, but not all of it positive. In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, MIT climatology professor Richard Lindzen argued that the global warming "alarmists" base their claims on "junk science."

Gore counters: Doctors and scientists once believed that cigarettes didn't cause cancer and tried at all costs to sow doubt in the public. "We've heard this before."

Gore will spend the summer traveling with the movie, which opens at two theaters in Los Angeles on May 24 and then begins a slow rollout across the nation. (He also has a book coming out on global warming.)

Once again on the campaign trail, he has been urging environmentalists to help pack the theaters on the opening weekend. He has also been lobbying theater owners to show the film. "I've told [them] that I would sell popcorn if I had to, I'd take the movie door-to-door. We want to use this as a tool to persuade people that we have to do something, before it's too late."

Contact Tina Daunt at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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