Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? followed über-auto company General Motors in the mid 1990s as they attempted to implement the EV1, the first mass-produced battery-operated car, only to eventually destroy it in response to the endless bureaucratic demands typically inherent in changes of all kinds, much less on a global scale. The film is an unusually spritely and polished message doc that built to the kind of ironic conclusion that tends to elude many of those who strive for greater ecological and environmental consciousness: that fire must be fought with fire, or, in this case, capitalism with capitalism. Brilliant salesmanship, arguably the greatest factor in many of the world’s most debilitating catastrophes (including most recently and obviously the 2008 economic crash), is also the key to selling a largely indifferent, self-absorbed public on lifestyle changes that may strike them as inconvenient, unsexy, or simply not worth the effort.
There are a number of well-meaning docs that preach so intently and so earnestly to audiences that they risk alienating even the choir, much less the unconverted, as they bore us to death with platitudes that appear to be divorced from the immediate concerns of day-to-day life. Who Killed the Electric Car? and now its more optimistic kinda-sequel Revenge of the Electric Car are fast, occasionally funny, and mostly (justifiably) concerned with telling a good yarn that hopefully opens people up to the possibilities not just of electric cars, which have obviously been chosen as a microcosmic example, but to embracing larger global initiatives that will most likely be unambiguously necessary to assure humankind’s survival.
Paine’s polish has its costs. Revenge of the Electric Car, which details the resurgence of interest in mass-producing the battery car in the mid-2000s, is sometimes too slick for its own good. You wonder how much of the film’s budget went toward the cute but needlessly elaborate opening credits; you wish that he’d skim back on the celebrity endorsements to allow more room for the nuts-and-bolts processes and battles inherent in true innovation, and you wish for more access to the nitty-gritty corporate battles that the people documented here are obviously waging. The devil, as they say, is in the details, and Revenge of the Electric Car doesn’t so much capture the devil as lightly hints around at his existence.
But this is still the kind of film that’s probably most necessary if movies hope to play any kind of part in our cultural rehab. And Paine, once again, has been allowed access to an impressive number of in-the-know people. Bob Lutz, the macho, old-school Vice Chairman of GM—and one of those responsible for the demise of the EV1—has returned as a convert to the marketability of the electric car, risking his reputation on a new battery model called the Volt. His competitors most prominently include famed entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of the upstart electric car company Tesla Motors, and Carlos Ghosn, CEO and President of Nissan of Japan.
Paine follows these men as they wage the sort of casual corporate warfare that we associate with big, swinging-dick execs. PR events are held, investors are sought, setbacks (particularly in regard to the implementation of the auto technology) are glossed over, and throughout it all, Paine manages a difficult tone: He trades on their charisma, providing us a vicarious nip of their power, while maintaining a detachment that does justice to the central irony. These men are risking their reps for an honorable pursuit for mostly the traditionally wrong reasons: ego and money.
The film also features fourth and fifth players, and their inclusion is another testament to Paine’s shrewdness. Greg “Gadget” Abbott and his wife are two do-it-yourself mechanics who’re attempting to start up a business that converts gas cars to electricity only to wake up one morning to find their entire blossoming enterprise wiped out from arson. The setback is meant as a neat parallel to the dangers that the 2008 crash poises to the bigger-fish protagonists, but the Abbotts’ struggle is also most obviously included for the simpler reason of human interest.
That tack, the sort of manipulation that frequently offends me in Michael Moore’s films, is a show-boating gambit that could’ve grown condescending and offensive while diverting from the real story of the finagling to get the electric car on the road. While these considerations are admittedly partially true, Greg Abbott’s presence also serves to illustrate the difficulty of revolution and the near impossibility of competing in a corporate climate that’s entirely backed by legislation, and so it’s this plot thread that helps to prevent Revenge of the Electric Car from slipping into pie-in-the-sky sanctimony. The film understands, hauntingly, that reform must compliment, not contradict, the ingrained need of the world’s superpowers to make as much money as humanly possible. Nothing else matters.