Al Gore, Movie Star

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Even by Washington standards, the D.C. premiere of Al Gore's new global warming film, An Inconvenient Truth, was lit by some very low-wattage celebrities: political journalists, Congressmen, people from National Public Radio. Also: Moby. Those concerned about greenhouse gases would have done well to avoid Joe Wilson, whose presence at these sorts of things appears to have been written into D.C. liberals' social contract, but all together the wonky audience generated about much heat as Jennifer Lopez's little finger (a unit of measurement known as the "Gigli"). Fittingly, the carpet wasn't even red, but green, and there wasn't champagne but rather some perfectly serviceable California chardonnay that came in boxes. Or you could hit the "yogurt bar." I'm sure the reception in Cannes was different.

Yet there was rock star in the room: Al. As soon as the lights went up, dozens of Washington's media elite (bureau chiefs, New York Times columnists, magazine editors) began to nonchalantly position themselves for an audience with Gore, forming an consciously indifferent crowd that engaged in minimalist small talk while waiting for the moment to edge in. Everyone was at once eager to be noticed and trying not to be too obvious, a gaggle of awkward preeners whose self-presentation wouldn't get past the first walk-off on "America's Next Top Model."

They didn't get autographs but rather mini-anecdotes — "He said he owed me a story," "He still hates me from that piece I wrote in '96," "I haven't seen him since Kyoto." — that were brought to the adjoining reception and then recounted and analyzed as part of the night's real entertainment: the Al Gore presidential run Ouija board. When people asked, "So, what do you think?" after this premiere, they weren't talking box office but Oval.

The movie offers few clues. It is, essentially, a two-hour PowerPoint presentation, enlivened — if that's the right word — by periodic shots of Al Gore staring pensively out of plane windows, Al Gore frowning contemplatively at computer screens, and Al Gore pacing thoughtfully through airport terminals. The man could make playing a kazoo look like meditation. The movie is about the threat of global warming, and it is full of dire predictions and horrifying scenarios for the Earth's future should we not change our fossil-fuel-guzzling ways. Rising sea levels, hordes of refugees, parching draughts: Call it a docu-trauma. Surprisingly entertaining docu-trauma, with at least as much emotional range as The Day After Tomorrow, and with more intentional humor.

But the crowd at the National Geographic Society — a suitably studious setting — saw it as the world's longest campaign ad. Even as Gore's spokesman circulated, repeating the words "He's not running" so frequently it started to sound like a round, no one wanted to believe it.

The mere fact of the movie was compelling to some. A huge publicity push that coincides with all the other would-be candidates' off-year limbering up? Surely he can't JUST want to save the world. Then there's how the movie, when not scaring the audience with the threat of the disappearance of Greenland (hint: not the continental equivalent of the appendix), casts Gore's life into the soft-focus glow most often associated with The Man From a Place Called Hope. His young days on the farm. Triumph over family tragedy. Determination and grace after humiliating defeat. And just as in a campaign ad, Gore carefully paints an unflattering picture of his opponent without ever mentioning his name. It's all "the current Administration" this and, even more conveniently, "they" that. A savvy move, considering the race is still against a Candidate to Be Named Later. Viewed through the optimistic lens of the post-premiere chatterers, An Inconvenient Truth is intended to be a political biography whose power comes from the film's terrifying argument about global climate change: Elect me or we will all die.

Then again, that just could be the boxed wine talking. There's nothing as sexy as a tease and Gore probably knows that his dance of the seven veils does more to heighten the movie's profile than the movie could ever do for his. It's about global warming, for goodness' sakes. A significant portion of its visual content consists of charts. It's the concert video only Al Gore could be the star of. Gore's groupies in the Geographic rotunda responded to him in the way high school students greet a returning alum who has surpassed expectations, but that glamour tarnishes quickly should he start hanging around the lunchroom all the time.

Which is to say, the press corps will take aim the instant Gore presents himself as a target. As it stands now, he has come to specialize at beating critics to the punch, perfecting a wry comic persona that manages to parody and deflect the image of the wooden know-it-all that dogged him in the 2000 campaign. For the May 13 episode of Saturday Night Live, he delivered an Oval Office speech from an alternate future, six years into a Gore administration. Global warming has been reversed, with the unfortunate consequence of precipitating a "war on glaciers" as they march forth across the Canadian border. Gore excoriates the politicians who seek to take up unjustified invasions of other countries, just to get our $11 trillion budget surplus back in circulation. (Gore's self-deprecating reply: "What part of 'lockbox' don't you understand?") Americans are still fearful to travel abroad — but only because of the spontaneous mass huggings they're in for as gratitude for the country's enlightened good will.

Bloggers have yet to whip themselves into a humor-patrolling frenzy over the MSM's lack of attention to Gore's satire — though it was undeniably funnier than Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondents' Association monologue, it had a smaller target: the person who was elected in 2000, not the one who actually sits in the office. It's that twist of history that made the skit so satisfying to liberals, myself among them, who have gnashed their teeth through six long years in George W. Bush's Washington. But the satisfaction one might draw from even a playful vision of an imaginary Gore administration points up the other limitation of an actual Gore 2008 campaign: its appeal rests in a nostalgia for an era that never was.