Usually the most voguish figure at a Sundance independent film fest is some avant-garde boy genius in sneakers and designer stubble, or a long-overlooked cameo actress of a certain age, whose hour has finally come. Not this year.
The star of Sundance 2006, being held in Park City, Utah, is a burly gentleman of 57, with a familiar face and dressed in a conventional navy blazer, whose finest hour we all thought far behind him. He features in a documentary, much of which consists of him taking us through a slide show to illustrate various scientific developments with which most of us are already very familiar. Welcome to the latest incarnation of Al Gore - and it could be the most potent yet.
It may be said without malice that Gore was not exactly a barrel of laughs in his eight years as Vice-President under the charismatic Bill Clinton, or during his plodding campaign for the White House. But this is a new Al, and you notice it before he opens his mouth. A sub-theme of his later years in Washington was his struggle to control his weight. Such concerns since have evidently been cast to the winds. Gore has added a couple of stone at least since the days he used to joke that at public appearances he was the one who looked like the secret service agent. Now, at last, he looks like he's enjoying himself.
The film is called An Inconvenient Truth. As you have probably guessed, it deals with global warming, a subject that has fascinated Gore since his days as a Harvard student in the late 1960s. Its hero is shown in his post-Washington reincarnation as itinerant prophet of environmental doom.
We see the man who once had a government plane called Air Force Two and a retinue of aides, travelling economy class on commercial airliners without a single secret service man on hand and often carrying his own bags to anonymous hotels.
And in the process a strange thing has happened. Hollywood is a powerful constituency in Democratic politics - and Gore, who once ceded that constituency to those glamorous schmoozers Bill and Hillary, has suddenly become Hollywood's dream candidate for 2008. There is, of course, one small problem. Al Gore insists he is a "recovering politician" who has not the slightest intention of running. I take him at his word. But some, much better placed than me, do not.
His disclaimers, they note, have been less than categoric. His fundraising networks are dormant, not extinct. His name recognition is still huge. Many former staffers, it is said, would flock to his standard if he decided to raise it. And look closely at the current Democratic landscape. Everyone assumes the party's nomination is Hillary Clinton's for the asking. But perhaps not: liberal activists who used to adore her are aghast at her contortions in support of the war in Iraq and her manoeuvring on the abortion issue. A space has opened on her left, into which the new Gore would naturally fit.
Well before the invasion, he was a public opponent of the war, warning that an unprovoked attack on Saddam Hussein would fuel terrorism and turn the Islamic world against America. He was right about that, just as he has belatedly but triumphantly been proved right about the perils of climate change. His speeches attacking President Bush have been the most stinging, and most cogent, of any prominent Democrat. And yet his eight years as Vice-President, and his record as one of the very few Democratic Senators to back the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, give him more solid national security credentials than any conceivable Democratic candidate, barring the former Nato commander Wes Clark.
But I can't believe it will happen. For one thing, Gore in candidate mode would surely revert to his stodgy ways of old. Leaving politics has liberated him. Rejoining politics would bring back the old Al Gore, wooden going on leaden, cautious and over-analysing to a fault - the most dismal campaign performer I can remember. More importantly, though, he's clearly having more fun in his new role than he ever did as Senator, Vice-President or White House candidate.
Some politicians do more good out of office than in it. Ex-president Jimmy Carter is one. Al Gore may be another. Better that he beats the environmental drum without fear or favour - and with the moral authority of a man who won the presidency among the people but lost it in the courts - than subject himself to the inhibitions of another bid for the White House.
But then again... look at Al Gore the sensation of Sundance, and you can't help thinking how different (and almost certainly better) the world would be, had the popular vote been allowed to decide the US election of 2000. That is as inconvenient, and equally undeniable, a truth as global warming.Reuse content