Commentary: Sundance: ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ marks a welcome return to the spotlight for Al Gore
Amid all its grim revelations of melting ice caps and depleted permafrost, the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” provided at least one genuinely thrilling revelation: Al Gore was a movie star.
Long derided for his stiffness and lack of charisma as a politician, the former vice president and failed presidential candidate had discovered his true calling as an evangelist for planet Earth, with a PowerPoint pulpit and a sermon full of depressing statistics. In “An Inconvenient Truth,” which first screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Gore took to his crusader role with the ease and conviction of someone who had nothing to lose, in part because he knew how much we all did.
Eleven Sundances later, Gore’s star wattage seemed entirely undimmed at Thursday evening’s premiere of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” an awkwardly titled, stirringly crafted follow-up that measures the progress that has and hasn’t been made in the battle against global warming. Taking over for Davis Guggenheim, the directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk largely abandon the framing device of Gore’s lecture (which he and his international team of trainees continue to give regularly) in favor of a nimbler, more on-the-go approach.
Despite some updates on the continuing decline of the world’s glaciers and the link between climate change and the recent Zika virus outbreak, the focus this time is less on science than on politicking. Cohen and Shenk tag along with Gore on a globe-trotting mission to persuade various heads of state to invest in wind and solar energy, and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels — an effort that culminates on-screen with the signing of last year’s historic Paris climate accord.
Environmental documentaries have of course become a veritable cottage industry in the years since “An Inconvenient Truth.” This year’s edition of Sundance alone will unspool several in a new section called the New Climate, including Marina Zenovich’s “Water & Power: A California Heist” and Jiu-liang Wang’s “Plastic China.” Next to all the competition, it’s Gore’s personality — something that he was once mocked for not possessing — and his personal history that give this ongoing cinematic project its particular gravitas. At 68, he may be grayer and paunchier, but the image he projects — that assured, steely intellect wrapped in that warm Tennessee drawl — seems all the more indelible and authoritative.
More vital dispatch than great cinema, “An Inconvenient Sequel” made undeniably strong counter-programming on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, not least because of its poignant reminder that Hillary Clinton was not the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election. While the film duly honors the role that President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry played in negotiating the Paris accords, Trump is treated as a mocking presence on the sidelines, dismissing the importance of climate change — and then suddenly, alarmingly ascending to power in the movie’s climactic stretch.
“We will win,” Gore told the crowd during the post-screening Q&A, to thunderous applause. I admit, after 99 minutes of explanations of freak weather patterns and the hottest year on record that was 2016, it was a relief to step out into the chilly Utah air and be comforted, if only for a moment, that the man might be right — and that we might yet live to see still another “Inconvenient” sequel.
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At one point in Cohen and Shenk’s documentary, Gore insists that it’s our responsibility to protect the planet, and that relocating to Mars is not a valid option. Incidentally, that science-fiction premise has absolutely nothing to do with “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” a disarmingly funny and twisted dark comedy that also had its world premiere on Thursday night, kicking off the festival’s closely watched U.S. dramatic competition.
The luminous Sundance mainstay Melanie Lynskey (“The Intervention,” “Hello I Must Be Going”) stars as Ruth, a woman who has become dispirited by mounting evidence that everyone around her is a jerk — a sentiment that she expresses rather more vividly than can be quoted in this newspaper. When a burglar breaks in to her home and makes off with her laptop, her meds and her grandmother’s prized silver, Ruth goes on a heroine’s quest to recover her stolen treasure — a journey on which she is accompanied by her eccentric neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood, rocking a man-braid and a set of nunchaku).
In thrillers as different as the under-seen “Open Windows,” the diverting “Grand Piano” and the near-unwatchable “Maniac,” Wood has really been letting his freak flag fly of late, and this latest performance offers no reason to suggest he should stop. He and Lynskey make a splendid comic duo, his deadpan chivalry playing nicely off her winning irritability. Their restlessly ping-ponging chemistry lays a firm foundation for the movie’s sudden left turn into Grand Guignol territory.
The shift, however jarring in the moment, makes sense when you remember that “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” (a Netflix original production) was written and directed by Macon Blair, an actor who helped produce the tense thrillers of Jeremy Saulnier, including “Green Room” (2015) and “Blue Ruin” (2013). Saulnier’s brutal commingling of humor and horror is clearly an inspiration here, and if Blair’s movie is a scrappier affair, its finger-bending, throat-smashing energy offers its own dark pleasures. The audience I saw it with seemed to eat it up; here’s a Sundance movie that, its title to the contrary, succeeded in fitting right in.
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