“I had a plan for my life,” former vice president Al Gore says during “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” And then he quotes Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until he gets punched in the face.”
Gore isn’t referring to the controversial Supreme Court decision of 2000 that cost him the presidency. He’s referring to the U.S. withdrawal last month from the Paris Climate Accord — a pact that plays such a big part in this new film, the follow-up to 2007’s Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” A survey of climate disasters and Gore’s yearslong efforts on behalf of environmental education, it’s directed by the husband-wife team of Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen (“Audrie & Daisy”), and may even be a more personal portrait than the original — capturing a man often caricatured as a painfully cautious politician, who has been set free by his passion for preserving the Earth.
“We really found an Al Gore who kind of transcended Al Gore the politician,” said Shenk, whose documentary opens July 28 in Manhattan (It opens Aug. 4 on Long Island). “ He’s gotten to the point where he’s so focused on this giant problem that he’s not caught up in day-to-day politics and it’s given him the freedom to be a more impassioned speaker, a less careful speaker — which for verite filmmaking is wonderful.”
Cohen agreed. “For audiences we’ve watched the film with, that’s been a key thing — that he’s a really different guy from what they knew as a presidential candidate.
“Sometimes they say, ‘Where was this guy when he was running?’ Of course, that’s fine to say from the cheap seats: There are a lot of things that are out of your control when you’re a candidate. But I think Al really owns this work. And the passion can come out when you’re in control.”
Shenk and Cohen were operating on the assumption that there would be a Hillary Clinton victory in November, when the movie was nearing completion. Cohen said not much of the content had to be changed, since it really concerns efforts worldwide to avert further climate damage and move toward renewable energy. “Al feels, and we feel, that here’s so much work under way that one guy, even if he is the president of the United States, can’t undo it all,” she said. “We felt all the good work in the film had to be highlighted.”
As Gore has said, “The fact that so many people all across the planet are now taking action on a daily basis, that’s what gives me the most hope.” Still there’s a moment in the film when the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner — who has devoted his post-White House career almost exclusively to the cause of climate change — says he regards the current condition of the planet, and refusal of so many to acknowledge it, as a “personal failure.”
Does he always carry it around like that?
“He tries not to,” said Cohen, “although for him to able to go there and talk about personal failure is significant, because he’s an eternal optimist. In order to do this work with the consistency he’s done it, he needs to remain optimistic. So I think he carries it around. But it doesn’t surface very often.”
It has been 10 years since “An Inconvenient Truth” arrived, “a lightning bolt,” as Cohen put it, into the climate-change discussion. The film did its share of polarizing people, as well as informing them; it was simply dismissed by many on the other side of the argument. But it also won a Best Documentary Oscar, which has to be a concern when you’re deciding to make a sequel. “It was a huge challenge for us,” Cohen agreed, “but one we couldn’t refuse.” Neither could Gore, of course, though Shenk and Cohen had to finesse him a little.
“For anyone who’s ever been involved in a verite film, there are stages of acceptance,” Shenk said with a laugh. The couple pitched their idea — to follow Gore around like a pair of bill collectors for 18 months — and he saw the value in it. “But the reality of a camera following you day and night is another thing.”
Shenk recalled that when he made an earlier documentary “The Island President” (2011) — about then-president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives and his efforts to save his low-lying nation from the encroaching Indian Ocean — Nasheed told them, “You guys were there when I got out of bed this morning and you want to be there when I go to bed at night.”
“It was a little like that with Al,” Shenk said. “He’s very camera savvy, but I don’t think he got it till we started showing scenes that we’d shot.”
Cohen said it was eye-opening to see all the places Gore goes and the scientists he speaks to. And the businessmen. And the politicians.
“He’s constantly trying to move this needle forward,” she said, “so we thought one way to do the film was to stick to him like glue as he went around and did all the incredible work he does. We thought that could be the stuff of real drama because built into his campaign are real enemies. There’s a dark side to all this. So we took the plunge and went around the world with him. And it all started to unfold.”