"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh," said President Donald Trump, "not Paris."
On the first of June, Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris agreement, a massive, 195-nation effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Under the 2015 agreement, the U.S., the world’s second-largest polluter, had agreed to commit billions of dollars in aid to less-developed nations by 2020. A pact made on a global scale, with its implicit nods to opening the door to further peaceful collaborations between otherwise contentious nations, was considered a breakthrough. It seemed changing the fate of our doomed planet, now predicted to warm a potentially devastating 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, was something we (or at least our world leaders) could agree on.
Promises, promises. You couldn’t have predicted a better occasion for a sequel to 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth than the 2016 election. The first movie, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, was already somewhat of a study in the precariousness of the climate debate during a shifty political era. It was, after all, Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 presidential election that, as the origin story he paints for us goes, pushed him into the life of environmental activism that he had been considering since he was in college. An Inconvenient Truth, which is by and large a glorified TED Talk, caught Gore before the Obama administration made a few substantial leaps forward, such as the Paris agreement, or the directive that intelligence agencies treat climate change like a national security issue. The message from the Obama administration was clear: Climate change isn’t a far-off danger, but an outright threat.
The 2016 election changed that — and changed the story Gore wanted to tell, accordingly. The new movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, isn’t an addendum to the original so much as it’s evidence of an entirely revamped approach. Last time, Gore was here to deliver the facts: that the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be linked to a drastic rise in temperature across the globe, and that the effects of this warming, which are already visible, will hit all of us — but most especially, and very disproportionately, the world’s poor. "Ultimately," he says in the first documentary, "this is not a political issue so much as it’s a moral issue." All still true, but Gore has rightly sensed that he is at risk of being on the losing side of an argument that, just two years ago, he had hope of winning.
So, the new movie, which is still largely preaching to the choir and is unfortunately as steeped in the origin myths of the man at its center as its predecessor, tries a different tack. In the months leading up to the Paris conference, Gore plays diplomat, taking us to India, which would initially resist the Paris agreement, to discuss the dominance of coal production; to Miami Beach, which is undertaking a $100 million project to ward off the inevitable coastal flooding of the years to come; to Tacloban, in the Philippines, which suffered more than 6,300 deaths after being devastated in 2013 by what The Guardian has called "the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history"; and elsewhere. Along the way, we see more than one reporter ask Gore if he’ll be getting back into politics. The irony of the question, as this documentary shows, is that he never really left politics, as such; he left behind only being an elected official.
An Inconvenient Sequel, to the degree that it’s capable, is a movie that documents the political labor of the climate fight. It is, in its rare moments of interest and insight, a film about the process of diplomacy and the debates between smaller nations and bigger ones, developed nations and the developing nations in their shadow. Gore talks, debates, negotiates, and plays silent witness. And he’s doing it for our sake, the movie makes clear, not his own. But the enduring frustration of the Inconvenient documentaries — since the first moment of the first movie, with its corny voice-over and bland images of nature — has been the emphasis on Al Gore. Inconvenient Sequel’s best idea is that we need to understand the climate debate in the context of, well, debate. A movie that follows Gore from meeting to meeting necessarily becomes a movie about world politics, and in the context of the 2016 election and the singular peril of Trump’s policies, it becomes a movie about the U.S. democratic process, specifically. "In order to fix the climate change crisis," Gore himself says, "we have to solve the democracy crisis."
Gore’s emphasis, as realized by efforts like his Climate Reality Leadership Corps, has long been on training citizens to do the work of educating their peers. Gore’s docs extend that effort — or pretend to. This movie’s purpose is less to reveal or study the diplomatic process, or even climate change, than it is to go through the motions of following Gore on his journey. That journey is inseparable from politics, mind you. But there remains a movie to be made about Al Gore, or a climate activist like him, functioning as a cog in the machine of world diplomacy, fighting what increasingly feels like an unwinnable fight through the bogged-down, overdetermined systems of world politics. Call it The War Room: Climate Edition.
An Inconvenient Sequel’s ambitions are deliberately limited to being accessible, watchable, and informative enough that we forget to suspect it of being a film-length advertisement for Gore’s leadership summits — which it is. But seeing Gore argue with leaders from India, and seeing him later reflect that the Paris accord debate hinged on the differences between a developed country’s sense of what’s possible versus a still-developing country’s sense of resources, I craved a documentary that was more in the mood to observe, not to declare. That’s in part because it would have made for a richer set of discussions. But it’s mostly because I’ve already heard what this movie and the man at its center have to say.
The problem with An Inconvenient Sequel is that for all it tries to show us, it never manages to see, or explore, any of what it’s showing. The people, the places, and the moral philosophies undergirding the politics of it all remain vague. Only Al Gore emerges with any specificity, and even that’s a stretch. In a movie about saving all of us, a rehash of the Great Man approach to politics and activism would seem to defeat the point.
It brings to mind a little-seen environmental documentary, likewise released in the U.S. this year, that does the opposite. Behemoth, directed by Zhao Liang, is a study of the coal mines of Inner Mongolia and the people — largely migrant workers — who labor there. The movie, which is currently available for rent on iTunes, largely proceeds without dialogue. Instead, we’re meant to make what we can of its images: the tufts of red and brown smoke going airborne with each mining explosion; the charred faces and injured limbs of the workers, whose nightly rituals include aggressively scrubbing a permalayer of dark soot from their faces and necks; the flashes of green, which shock us as they remind us of what nature looks like before devastation.
Lest we begin to think this is merely a piece of reportage, Zhao inserts flashes of cinematic poetry. Occasionally, a voice speaks to us, and we see images of nearby fields, with the mines hovering in the background, manipulated and spliced to appear as if they had been cut apart and pieced back together. In these moments, a nude adult body curls up in the landscape, vulnerable to everything beautiful and terrible about it, and a voice calls out to us with repurposed bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy: "God created the beast Behemoth on the fifth day," the voice says — the behemoth being the industry. "This is who we are," the voice says in the end. "We are that monster. The monster minions." The movie closes with a tour of all that that industrial production has wrought: a "ghost city," labored upon by many, but populated by no one.
It’s a strange film, a piece of nonfiction that says everything while saying little outright. We take in the landscapes through a series of slow pans across the horizon, from one side to the other, surveying the devastation of China’s booming mining industry. Close-ups of the workers’ faces individualize them amid their work, and so do long shots of the work itself. Later, when we see them suffering in hospital beds as they slowly die of pneumoconiosis, they stand out to us as people, even as we never get to know them as characters, really.
There are, as always, questions to be raised about that approach, but Zhao avoids exploitation. "I don’t think that artistic works can change society," he told The New York Times. "They are very weak." He said he has moved toward making movies for himself, rather than out of a sense of social responsibility. And yet, with this movie, Zhao has given us the kind of illuminating art the issue deserves. He opts to reveal and persuade where others deign to preach.