ON DECEMBER 5th Al Gore, the former vice-president who has spent the last three decades warning about the dangers of global warming, took the lift to the top of Trump Tower to meet the world’s most powerful climate-change sceptic. The scene, captured in “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”, which had its debut at this month’s Sundance Film Festival, conveys Mr Gore’s determination never to stop trying to convert unbelievers, no matter how grim the task seems. The film embodies this sober spirit, showing how much worse matters have become since Mr Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006. The past three years were the three hottest on record.
The new film was just one of a raft of environmentally themed non-fiction films at this year’s Sundance, a mecca for independent movies that draws producers, directors, celebrities and civilians to a ski town in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, Utah. Taken together these documentaries had a powerful effect, depressing audiences with stark visual proof of destruction wrought on the environment, while managing to inspire them a little with humanity’s ability to respond.
Not all films were gloomy. “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman”, based on a book by Miriam Horn, shows people in three jobs not always associated with conservation fighting to preserve natural resources. Ranchers in Montana band together to lobby Congress to protect the Rocky Mountain Front from oil drilling; farmers in Kansas stop tilling their soil in an effort to restore it; and commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, alarmed by the depletion of red snapper, work with environmentalists to institute quotas.
“Chasing Coral”, directed by Jeff Orlowski, was the most visually mesmerising of the bunch. Mr Orlowski, whose “Chasing Ice” from 2012 documented receding glaciers, follows up to show the threat to coral reefs from warming oceans. Much of “Chasing Coral” is about his team’s grappling with the Herculean technical challenge of filming coral in time-lapse under water—succeeding only after relentless, exhausting effort. The result is a triumph of both visual and narrative storytelling. As a coral scientist describes the Great Barrier Reef as the “Manhattan” of the ocean, where fish take up residence as if in apartment blocks, the cameras show clown fish popping out of the equivalent of windows in skyscrapers. As a narrator describes how a moray eel and coral trout join together to hunt for food, the camera draws the audience into a bizarre buddy-cop tale of co-operation. A companion virtual-reality piece immerses viewers in the ocean in 360-degree video, narrated by Zackery Rago, a diver-cameraman and self-described “coral nerd” who emerges as the breakout star of the documentary.
But the festival’s overall star was always going to be Mr Gore. “An Inconvenient Truth” can be said to have spawned the genre of climate-change films. With the new film screening on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the former vice-president’s presence was layered with ironies. Here was the last candidate before Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote and lose the presidency. Here was one of the world’s most famous climate-change activists taking the stage hours before Mr Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, was to take office.
The film, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, picks up where “An Inconvenient Truth” left off, beginning with a montage of critics of the first film calling Mr Gore an alarmist. It then proceeds to show that the calamities Mr Gore warned about in his famous slideshow in the first film—melting icepacks, rising temperatures, severe flooding—have come about even more quickly than predicted. Mr Gore trudges through the melting ice of the Arctic and walks through flooded streets in Miami, where some roads have been raised in response to rising ocean levels. But the film focuses on progress too, featuring, for example, the Republican-run Georgetown, Texas, which aims to get all its electricity from renewables.
The style of the film is almost that of a biopic, and inevitably, it feels like an earnest appreciation of the earnest Mr Gore. It features leadership-training sessions he began in order to bring recruits to the cause; it describes in detail his lobbying efforts to get India onside at the Paris climate conference, where a far-reaching deal was ultimately struck in 2015; and it ends with Mr Gore giving rousing speeches to never give up the fight, quoting Martin Luther King and Wallace Stevens (“After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends”).
The friendly crowd at Sundance gave the film, and then its star, standing ovations. Speaking onstage after the screening, Mr Gore did not reveal what Mr Trump said to him on that day he visited Trump Tower—only that there would be more conversations to come. More than 25 years ago, on a rainy Friday night in a lecture room at Harvard, Mr Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, gave an early version of his global-warming slideshow to a small audience, including this correspondent. He spoke with just as much conviction at Sundance a quarter of a century later. “The will to act is a renewable resource,” he said.