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This is one year you won’t have to stay up late to find out if Al Gore won—from Roger Ebert to Premiere to Entertainment Weekly, everyone predicts that Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, which packaged Gore’s lecture on global warming for a mass audience, will walk away with the award for best documentary.
It’s not hard to figure out why: it grossed $45 million worldwide—about 35 times what the other four movies made combined. It’s the third highest-grossing documentary ever made, after Fahrenheit 9/11 and last year’s winner, March of the Penguins. That means more Academy voters have seen it, so the award is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
But An Inconvenient Truth is really an anomaly among the nominees. It began as a lecture and it remains one, no matter how hard Guggenheim tries to tart it up with cartoon sequences and shots of Gore driving around Tennessee and flying around the world, pumping carbon into the atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to watch it 20 years from now, when its political moment has passed.
Compare that to Deliver Us From Evil, Amy Berg’s horrifying tale of a pedophile priest who preyed on children throughout the 70s and 80s as the diocese of Stockton, California, shuffled him around from one parish to the other. Berg tracked down the retired Father Oliver O’Grady in Dublin and elicited truly stomach-turning admissions from him. It’s not a tabloid movie -- Berg presents some expert analysis of how the culture of the priesthood has encouraged abuses -- but Berg has collected some wrenching moments from the victims and their families. This movie has the staying power of a Russian novel, and it deserves the Oscar.
The other nominees also broke real stories: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp, about a pentecostal children’s camp in North Dakota, featured scenes of Pastor Ted Haggard and immediately became a source of stock footage when the Haggard scandal erupted, but it also exposed how some evangelicals exploit home schooling to raise their children in a different nation than the rest of us. In My Country, My Country, Laura Poitras reports from Baghdad in the lead-up to the January 2005 election, getting to know a Sunni physician who’s running for the legislature and observing as the U.S. tries to hold things together. And James Longley’s beautiful Iraq in Fragments not only finds indelible human stories among the three factions in Iraq, its middle section provides a singular street-level view of Shia fundamentalists in Naseriyah and Najaf.
On the other hand, An Inconvenient Truth has something these other movies lack: real power in the real world. Isn’t that what every filmmaker dreams of? More than anything else the Gore movie tipped the scales in the national debate on global warming; it may even have forced President Bush to use the words “climate change’ in the last State of the Union. Not even Martin Scorsese can do that.
I recorded a shorter version of this as voice-over for a video clip that's posted at ABCNews.com.