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Warmer Al Gore finds a new stump

Former vice president asserts his global warming warnings in a documentary.

January 18, 2006|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Al Gore, leading man?

To borrow a cliche from the Hollywood marketing playbook, the new global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" stars the former vice president as you've never seen him before.

Al Gore wheeling his own suitcase through airports, taking off his shoes and emptying his pockets at security. Al Gore firing up crowds with his one-man PowerPoint presentation show on arctic melt rates, devastating heat waves and dangerous changes in ocean currents.

Al Gore cracking jokes, reflecting candidly on his own foibles.

The failed presidential candidate doesn't immediately come to mind as the kind of charismatic star Hollywood might turn to to dramatize a pet cause. But his quest caught the attention of a group of filmmakers -- among them "Pulp Fiction" producer Lawrence Bender -- who have translated it to the screen in a documentary slated to premiere Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Although the 90-minute documentary might not sell out the multiplexes, the screening has sold out at Sundance and Gore's appearances around the country are drawing throngs. Last week at Vanderbilt University in Gore's hometown of Nashville, 1,100 people filled a large auditorium, with 300 turned away by fire marshals.

Gore was loose and funny. "I used to be the next president of the United States," he told the audience, drawing a roar of laughter.

"I don't find that to be very funny," he deadpanned. "I'm a recovering politician."

Afterward he was mobbed, like a rock star.

In short, Gore has seemingly lost the stiffness that was the hallmark of his vice presidency and White House run as he traipses from campus to campus and country to country spreading a serious message: Unless we stop our polluting ways, we're doomed.

The film coincides with Hollywood's renewed interest in Gore as a possible presidential candidate in 2008, as well as a changing cinematic landscape in which documentaries from all sides of the political spectrum are finding audiences and affecting the political conversation.

He's also assuming a rising profile as a media player. In August, he launched a cable and satellite news channel, Current, aimed at young adults. The network also provides a venue for aspiring documentarians to screen their short films. Earlier this month, Gore invited Sean Penn and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford to advise fledgling filmmakers on journalistic techniques and storytelling.

And on Monday, he made national news by charging in an impassioned speech in Washington that President Bush's record on civil liberties posed a "grave danger" to America's constitutional freedoms. He urged the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Bush's authorization of domestic surveillance without warrants.

But not everyone is sold on the reinvented Al Gore.

After his speech attacking Bush, the Republican National Committee issued a statement accusing Gore of having an "incessant need to insert himself in the headline of the day."

Some also question whether his increased profile in recent months is a move toward another presidential bid. Gore has steadfastly said that he does not want to run again. And fiery political speeches aside, raising awareness about global warming is where he says he wants to invest his political capital.

"He continues to find ways to make an impact on the issues and causes that he cares about," said Mike Feldman, a Washington, D.C.-based communications consultant who served as traveling chief of staff when Gore was vice president. "Being out of office hasn't preventing him from doing that."

As for appearing more personable in the documentary, Feldman said: "The world of politics can really distort a person's public persona. And that is especially true in a presidential campaign. There are real limitations to how much anyone can convey through the prism of the press. Perhaps one of the things that the film will accomplish is to give people a more unfiltered glimpse of this man, and through him, some insight into a very important issue."

Global warming has been a passion of Gore's since he was a student a Harvard University, where one of his professors warned in the 1970s that carbon dioxide would have a devastating effect on the Earth's environment.

"This is an issue like no other," he told the students at Vanderbilt.

After losing the presidential election six years ago, Gore pulled together a nonpartisan slide show on the effects of global warming and took it on the road, making hundreds of appearances since then at universities and colleges, and for lawmakers, environmentalists and anyone else who will listen.

Early last year, longtime environmentalist Laurie David, wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David, saw the presentation and was impressed. She asked Gore to hold forums in Los Angeles and New York. She invited like-minded activists, including Bender. Bender and Laurie David said they were so moved by the message that they agreed to make a movie based on Gore's work.

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