Packaged to be most convenient
IT’S no coincidence that the gripping trailer for “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s new documentary about global warming, plays like a horror movie. Much of the film, which opens here Wednesday, is devoted to Gore’s presentation of the catastrophes that have resulted from the unprecedented climate change gripping the Earth today.
The film’s most poignant moments are the ones in which we see Gore traveling around the country with his one-man slide show. His Secret Service retinue long gone, the man who narrowly lost the disputed 2000 presidential election schleps his bags alone through airports and waits in line at security checkpoints like the rest of us.
When I met Gore for an interview at a local hotel, he was so bereft of advisors that he turned to me for counsel on whether to wear a tie to that night’s premiere of his film. “You don’t need a tie,” I told him. “Only agents wear ties to premieres.”
What I really thought was -- wearing a tie would make him look like a politician. In “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore seems to have miraculously shed his political skin -- he exudes passion and inspiration. For many viewers, the contrast is inescapable. If voters had seen this gospel fervor in 2000, Gore might be president today rather than the guy from Texas who’s been rolling back environmental regulations left and right.
There’s another story hidden in the Gore film that goes beyond its riveting portrait of what Gore calls our “Category 5 denial” over the ravages of global warming. The documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, recounts Gore’s lengthy record as an environmental advocate, showing him holding congressional hearings on global warming in the 1970s. But what you don’t see in the film is Gore giving speeches about global warming during the 2000 campaign.
That inconvenient truth is a bracing reminder that the solutions to our global warming crisis are unlikely to come from Washington, no matter what party’s in power. As a presidential contender, with the eyes of the world trained on him, Gore did not make his cherished cause a focal point of his campaign. As the Washington Post noted in 2000, “As he runs for president, environmentalism has yet to emerge even as a central organizing principle of Gore’s campaign -- never mind his plans for civilization.... Gore usually gives the environment a passing mention during stump speeches, but the campaign has not devoted a major policy address to global warming.”
Gore disputed this assessment during our interview. “I made speeches and proposals, but in the press gaggle afterwards, the questions would always be about the horse race,” he said. “We had Bill Nye the science guy with a giant 10-foot melting ice cube at one event, to get the message across, and it was as if the event didn’t take place. I even gave a speech before the Detroit Economic Club that talked about global warming. Look at my convention speech in L.A. Every major speech I gave had a mention of it.”
However, a look at transcripts of various speeches that year finds little emphasis on global warming. Gore mentioned the subject at his Detroit Economic Club speech, but he spoke there in 1998, not during the campaign. His convention speech had one sentence about global warming, about as long as the sentence about protecting children from entertainment that glorifies violence. Why would Gore soft-pedal his favorite issue when it mattered the most?
In his new book, “Politics Lost,” a jeremiad against the pernicious effect of political consultants, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein contends that Gore’s consultants shut him down. According to Tad Devine, a key Gore advisor, Gore “wanted to talk about the environment. And I said to him, ‘Look, you can do that, but you’re not going to win a single electoral vote more than you now have.’ ”
In late June 2000, when Gore finally gave a major global warming speech in Philadelphia, the media ignored it, either because cynical political reporters had little interest in visionary rhetoric or because, as Klein contends, Gore’s consultants spun it as a speech about high gas prices. “In essence, Gore’s consultants wanted to run a different campaign than he did,” Klein told me. “It wasn’t easy to talk about global warming in 2000, but that’s the tragedy of Al Gore. He was 15 years ahead of his time on this issue, but when his time came, he didn’t put the issue front and center.”
Klein contends that if Gore had spoken with passion about something he really cared about, he would’ve attracted voters who didn’t necessarily agree with his views but admired his willingness to stick up for strongly held beliefs. Instead, Gore appeared stiff and phony. As Klein puts it: “The stiffness was, in effect, a campaign strategy: Every last word he uttered had been market-tested in advance.”
This holds true today, whether it’s President Bush hitting all bases in his speech on immigration or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, as Arianna Huffington recently put it, has “become more processed than Velveeta.”
For more depressing evidence of this, search out the new documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis,” which chronicles the 2002 Bolivian presidential race, in which a crew of ex-Gore consultants helped elect a former president who was so wildly out of touch with the majority of Bolivians that he was forced into exile two years later as the country teetered on the brink of civil war. The filmmaker, Rachel Boynton, got such incredible access that you can see the exact moment when, faced with deteriorating polling numbers, the consultants decide to go negative and put out damaging stories about the rival candidate.
I watched the movie with a film producer who marveled afterward, “Geez, it’s just the way we sell a summer movie!” Boynton agrees: “In fact, the techniques we use to sell movies -- the testing and focus groups -- came directly from politics.”
If there is anything today as Velveeta-ish as our politicians, it would be our summer movies, which in their desire to be all things to all people are as stiff and robotic as any on-message candidate afraid of saying anything that might alienate a key constituency. That would be a perfection description for “The Da Vinci Code,” which is so desperate to avoid controversy that it might as well have been a presidential aspirant in campaign mode afraid of offending any segment of its audience.
Sony Pictures treated the movie as if it were a candidate with a 15-point lead in the polls, keeping it away from critics until the last minute the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ducked the political press during the California recall election. In Washington, you know a politician is in trouble when his advisors hastily revamp his ads. The same goes here: Hollywood insiders knew “Poseidon” was capsizing when the TV spots, which had featured the film’s star, Kurt Russell, suddenly changed direction, ditching nearly all mention of Russell while emphasizing the film’s action scenes.
It’s uncanny how much movie stars have become like politicians, only speaking to friendly press outlets and relentlessly staying on message. Like political pundits, the showbiz media is so eager for a glimpse of spontaneity that it treats any deviation from the norm as a newsflash. This mortal fear of a misstep has made Hollywood just as poll driven as Washington, with movies enduring endless research screenings the way Gore, preparing for his Bush debates, had videotapes of his prep sessions shown to a focus group to determine which of his practice answers worked.
The price we pay for being in the thrall of consultants is high, judging from the debasement of our pop culture and the political process. “People in focus groups only make judgments based on what exists, not what might be,” says Klein. “They’re only looking in the rearview mirror. With movies, everyone knows by Friday night what the film will do. It’s the same with politics. Everything is militantly short term -- it’s the cult of right now.”
There’s no better vehicle to expose the danger of short-term thinking than “An Inconvenient Truth,” which makes a salient point -- we have everything we need to solve the global warming crisis except the political will. But political will requires bold leadership. California is in the vanguard of global warming initiatives, thanks to activists such as Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). The average citizen here is on board too -- Toyota sold 107,897 Priuses last year, most of them apparently in my neighborhood.
But the rest of the country remains a tougher sell. Gore is convinced his film will inspire support for change, saying, “What has to change is public opinion. And only when that changes will the politicians have enough courage to do the things that are necessary.” I wonder about that. Did FDR wait for public opinion to wage war on Germany? Did LBJ wait before prodding Congress to pass civil rights legislation?
I hope people see Gore’s film and are moved to demand action. It’s just too bad that when you want to actually accomplish something important, like saving the planet, you have to stop running for president to try and make it happen.
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