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Issue Date:  June 30, 2006

The last days of the West

Al Gore warns of climate change in 'Inconvenient Truth'; 'Down in the Valley' is a cowboy elegy


It is hard to review Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in strictly film terms. David Guggenheim’s new documentary is a brilliant piece of work, but many will be tempted to discuss it in a primarily political framework. It seems most unlikely that the movie will lead to the Democrats drafting their 2000 standard-bearer, who won the popular vote, to run again in 2008. What is far more important is whether its central, realistic, basically moral message will be heard and acted upon by the nation at large.

It is shocking how little the dangers of climate change have influenced public policy; they haven’t even become part of the staple of Sunday sermons. Yet the lovingly presented views of the planet from space recall the Genesis story, if only subliminally. The film makes clear that there is no real argument on the subject of whether human actions are creating such dangerous levels of carbon dioxide that we are at a critical moment when our decisions still matter. The scientific community is virtually unanimous; only the popular media and the current administration, both massively influenced by oil and other business interests, pretend that the issue is still debatable. What is exciting about “An Inconvenient Truth” is that it makes its multimedia presentation both gripping and convincing.

As Mr. Gore says -- and the film reveals -- he’s given this slide show hundreds of times from Chicago to China; if the public watches the colorful, clearly presented graphs it includes, they cannot fail to see that rapidly increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already dangerously affecting the temperature of waters on earth.

Along with the high-tech part, the director makes skillful use of a more relaxed Mr. Gore, one with quiet humor who can draw on his personal and family history with emotional effectiveness. He comes through more as a likable university lecturer than a canny politician; certainly the junior high school audience I saw the movie with took him to their hearts.

Mr. Guggenheim shows great skill in varying the presentation, moving from Mr. Gore’s fiddling with gadgets on the stage to easily digested visual aids, from simple graphs and amusing animations to photographs of his home and family as well as pictures of hurricanes and receding glaciers. The film makes clear that Mr. Gore’s commitment to ecological issues grew out of family tradition and tragedy, but it is never overly sentimental: The appeal is to a universal moral imperative -- the care of planet Earth.

In his 2000 presidential campaign, Mr. Gore came through as a stiff personality unsure of where to direct his appeals. Though the film is not without self-serving aspects -- the audiences who applaud him in clips from other appearances recorded here are as uniformly flattering as those in the public appearances of our current president -- there are hints of a more intimate voice as well.

He convinces us that he is completely at home resting beside a river on a lazy summer day, and such scenes are all the more convincing because they come before and after extended talk about the ecological dangers that the movie is about. Regardless of what it may or may not signal as the revival of Mr. Gore as a national political figure, “An Inconvenient Truth” is a major contribution to nationwide reflection.

In trying to avoid the mindless pap of Hollywood blockbusters, one can easily end up with arty pretentiousness. There’s talent and imagination in writer-director David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley, and Edward Norton has a certain magnetism as Harlan, the lonesome South Dakota cowboy who wears his Stetson hat and lives in a blighted motel in the San Fernando Valley. But the lyricism of an afternoon at the beach with Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a stunning young woman who lures him from his gas station job, soon feels strained. Sex between them comes too fast and approaching doom is signaled by shots of the elaborate gun collection of her suspicious law officer father, Wade (David Morse).

Harlan is excessively polite and is given stale Zen lines like “You can be whatever you want to be,” which he utters while sharing a bathtub with Tobe. A brief bit in which Harlan twirls his Colt 45 in front of his motel mirror confirms our sense of his unreliability. Plot links are uncertain: Tobe gets back late from a brief trip, leaving time for Harlan to take her insecure 13-year-old brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) for a ride on a horse and give him a lesson in shooting tin cans off a side wall. There are wonderful shots of urban Los Angeles from patches of open field not far from main highways, and a splendid sky looks down on what seems a pocket of the old West lost in today’s California.

The hostility of Tobe’s father leads Harlan to suggest that he and Tobe should run off together, but by this time she’s become more wary; her lover may be not just impractical but deranged. By this time audiences also have reason to be uneasy about both plot consistency and the safety of Tobe and Lonnie, who has responded uncritically to Harlan’s attention. “Down in the Valley” wants to be considered a poetic study of the old Hollywood cowboy but takes far too long to pull together its ill-fitting plot links.

While riding off with Lonnie, Harlan doesn’t realize he’s come across the set of a Western movie being made today and wants to join the camaraderie of the scene. The relentless pursuit by Tobe’s father, however, is soon resumed, leading to an elegiac finale in which we are asked to celebrate the pathos of lost innocence.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie critic. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006

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