WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --The conventional truth about An Inconvenient Truth is that it's nothing more than a transcription of Al Gore's traveling slide show about global warming. But during a joint interview before the national rollout of the movie (now playing at the Charles and Muvico, it expands to four more area theaters Friday), Gore focused any praise for its artistry and potency on its 42-year-old director, Davis Guggenheim.
Gore said, "It was Davis' idea to build a 50-foot screen for my lecture, and then gather the computer power to enrich all the graphics on that screen. And it was Davis' idea to provide a narrative thread with biographical short pieces that I wouldn't have wanted to do - wouldn't have felt comfortable to do - except for the fact that he'd gotten my trust and confidence."
Guggenheim envisioned An Inconvenient Truth as a performance film comparable to concert films like Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold. In particular he looked for inspiration to Swimming to Cambodia, Demme's production of Spalding Gray's one-man show. Guggenheim said, "That film proves the wide screen can give a performer the same impact he has on a proscenium stage."
"I had no idea of that," interjected Gore. "Davis taught me that, and also that short biographical pieces could provide a narrative thread which the viewer can connect to the message. One of the things he's done brilliantly is frame each one of the short stories in a way that really does move the message of the slide show forward and connect to it integrally."
Scary and inspiring
In fact, An Inconvenient Truth is a surefooted, savvy piece of filmmaking. Guggenheim varied the visual texture subtly yet boldly. He shot the lecture with the same high-definition digital camera that George Lucas used for the Star Wars prequels, but interspersed it with 16mm and 8mm footage of Gore offstage and at home, as well as four different types of animation and images shot on hand-held high-def cameras. The tapestry includes a portrait of Gore as ecological warrior, bloodied but unbowed. The result is scary and inspiring.
Critics shouldn't be surprised. For over a decade, Guggenheim has directed hours of the best fictional television, including episodes of 24, Alias, Deadwood, Numb3rs, and the pilot to The Unit. And he's a second-generation documentary moviemaker. His father, Charles Guggenheim, a celebrated DC-based producer and director who also worked for political candidates, won three Academy Awards for feature-length documentaries and one for best live action short for Robert Kennedy Remembered.
Guggenheim grew up in Washington, "right next to the Cathedral, on Cathedral Avenue," and went to Sidwell Friends and then Brown University. Over the phone from Los Angeles, Guggenheim says his "earliest memories" come from "working on my father's shoots," traveling to all points on the map, "going into coal mines or boarding shrimp boats."
Fictional TV is his "bread and butter": CBS just picked up a pilot he directed about neurosurgeons, starring Stanley Tucci. But he loves "going back and forth; I love the way TV can feed my habit for making documentaries."
Sun TV critic David Zurawik hailed his 2001 PBS documentary, The First Year, about novice teachers moving through the Los Angeles public school system, as "a great little documentary" that leaves viewers "in awe at the dedication of some teachers and howling in anger at the insensitivity of some of the folks with whom they work."
The First Year led producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender to enlist Guggenheim for this film. "They said Al Gore gives this amazing slide show and we want to make it into a movie." Guggenheim was dubious. But as he watched Gore give his illustrated lecture gratis and connect to audiences of all kinds, he found that people listened to Gore differently than during the 2000 campaign. Gore spoke with renewed fire and confidence. "And audiences were ready to hear him. It's as if they knew simplistic answers have been failing us. We're open to more nuanced answers. The lens we're looking through to him has changed."
Character in a story
It still took months for Guggenheim to persuade himself that he could turn the lecture into an engrossing movie. "I lost sleep over it, partly because I found the message so profound." He knew he could perform a simple service by providing movie audiences with "a front-row seat" to Gore's lecture.
But "the little angel on my shoulder" kept telling Guggenheim "there was something underneath the surface story - something about him out there in the world, trundling his bag through airports, and doing it for free. All of these appearances are free, more than a thousand so far. I've been with him in a convention center in Minneapolis, in a Kiwanis Club somewhere else. He even did it for [conservative strategist] Grover Norquist's group."
So Guggenheim began thinking of Gore as a character. "It brought me back to the essence of character-based storytelling. What must it have been like for him after the 2000 election? What do you decide to do in life after that kind of defeat? There are more glamorous ways to live your life. He doesn't get paid, he doesn't have a security detail. He could have thought, `Look, I've put in 25 years of service, what can I do that would be lucrative?' But he goes back to his core values, he goes back to what he believes in, and goes out there city by city, person by person, trying to get this message across.
"That was how the project clicked for me. I thought, if I could tell that part of the story, then the science part will have a life to it."