An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim, running
approx 100 mins, rated PG (Australia & US), U (UK), G (Canada &
When Al Gore was addressing US Congress on 21 March 2007, insisting
that global warming is a “planetary emergency” that requires urgent
government action, he was accused of being of a “movie star”. Gore
replied, a little awkwardly, “I’m no star. It’s just a slide show.”
It must be the most famous slide show in history.
That slide show was made into a film, An
Inconvenient Truth, playing at film festivals and theatres
throughout 2006, and now the DVD is available. It occurred to me that
this slide show and film are terrific models of communication and
remarkable examples of plain language in action.
As a film, An Inconvenient Truth
is a slick and very convincing documentary. When I first saw it in June
2006, it seemed to be the first step in Al Gore’s next presidential
campaign. But Gore says he’s not interested in that – not now, anyway.
Whatever people may think about the accuracy of the data he presents,
even his critics agree that potentially dry, technical material is
presented in an interesting and entertaining way – in language and
visuals that most can understand.
There’s no denying that this is a comprehensive collection of data
about global warming. It’s polished, but not too polished. In the film,
Gore estimates that he’s given the presentation 1000 times since 1989,
yet he retains a quirky professorial air, pacing and pointing and
fiddling with the technology. Gore’s method, though sometimes
passionate, is a million miles from the frenzied style of Michael Moore
(Bowling for Columbine, 2002, Fahrenheit 9/11, ( 2004). The LA
Times called it a “straightforward, but quietly devastating film”.
The film expands on the slide show by showing Gore schlepping his bags
and being patted down at airports across America and around the world.
In between segments of his presentation we see snippets of Gore’s
private life. We hear that he learned about climate change from
professors at college and that it became a life-long passion. We also
learn how the tragedies of losing his sister to lung cancer, and nearly
losing his 6-year-old in an accident, and of course his failure to
become President, have galvanised him in his current crusade. So the
film is not all facts and figures about global warming. Director
Guggenheim has said that in this way the movie became the story of “how
he first learned about it, how he became obsessed with it, and at
moments how he felt derailed”.
In the early days, Gore used to give his slide show using 3 projectors
and a ladder. After he joined the board of Apple, he enlisted a few
engineers and computerised his presentation, using Keynote, Apple’s presentation
So how does it rate as a piece of plain language communication? I have
First, as a presentation:
1. Gore goes somewhat overboard with the graphs – at one stage I
couldn’t work out what a particular graph […] was showing, and the film
didn’t actually explain it. Possibly the most powerful moment in the
film is when he mounts a hydraulic lift with pointer in hand and
ascends, following the line of a graph showing the climb of carbon
dioxide of the chart. It’s breathtaking, but, ironically, it also shows
how a physical demonstration is more powerful than any graph.
2. Some of the labelling is misleading……. And most of the captions are
in All Caps, which we know are harder to read for most people.
3. Gore skims over a couple of points – important ones [….] – without
giving the evidence to back them up. This is quite significant as he
prides himself on the fact that he has all the scientific evidence in
4. Gore doesn’t actually bring all his points to a conclusion with any
practical call to action – it is left to the filmmakers to do that……
5. Gore makes the point that global warming is a moral issue – a
question of ethics. This is his “killer point”. And yet everything he
says, every point he makes, indicates that it is a matter of life and
death – a matter of the survival of the human race itself, to say
nothing of millions of individual people. So, ironically, I think this
actually weakened his argument for the need practical action. It moves
the argument from the concrete, the pragmatic and the self-serving to
the abstract and philosophical and the selfless.
Next, as a film:
6. Particularly at the beginning, the film seems a little confused (who
are these people?).
7. Its past as a multimedia presentation is too obvious. Too many
graphics are distancing, and the effect is not very filmic.
8. The film makers seem to have gotten too close and fallen in love
with the subjects of their documentary: Gore and global warming. So
objectivity is lost, and that diminishes the power of the message.
But these criticisms do not diminish the overall power of this filmed
presentation as an effective communication of complex facts.
The most memorable image? A polar bear swimming endlessly in search of
an ice floe. And the most memorable quote? “Political will is a
“removing obstacles to understanding and misconceptions”.
Lawyer and plain language writing consultant