Like the kid brother of An Inconvenient Truth, Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? delivers cinematic activism of an eco-friendly variety, charting the initial success, ultimate failure, and grassroots efforts to revive the titular battery-powered vehicle. Structured as a whodunit, this reasonably outraged doc (narrated by Martin Sheen) shuffles through a catalog of suspects in the electric car’s murder, detailing the combination of forces that caused the revolutionary machine to disappear from the road mere years after first being introduced. Unsurprisingly, it’s a rather long list of culprits, from oil companies (who saw the technology as a potentially lethal competitor) and the federal government (unwilling to break ranks with their automotive industry bedfellows) to the competing Hydrogen Fuel Cell (which remains decades away from being a practical alternative to gasoline) and general consumer indifference. Since the electric car was introduced in California by GM (with its EV1 line) as a means of complying with 1990’s Zero Emissions Mandate, the most egregious guilty parties eventually turn out to be automakers themselves—who created the unprofitable cars and then spent amazing amounts of time and energy trying to squelch their inventions—and California’s Air Resources Board, which spinelessly buckled under corporate pressure to repeal the state’s groundbreaking law.
Though its arguments appear diligently researched (a fact apparent both from its informative on-screen info, as well as its production notes’ unwieldy wealth of data), Paine’s film never becomes detrimentally bogged down by unmanageable talk about CAFE standards or emissions regulations, focusing as much on the anger of engineers and celebrity “owners” such as Mel Gibson and Peter Horton (who were only allowed to lease their cars, thus making the subsequent recall/confiscation smoother) as on the technical jargon that elucidates why the electric car was, for most drivers, an environmentally safe and economically thrifty solution to gas-guzzlers and hybrids. Relatively partisan, Who Killed the Electric Car? suffers most from its corny attempts to humanize the vehicle, including a silly mock funeral staged by vocal supporters and a former GM employee’s sad visit to a car museum to visit one of her “babies.” Such drippy sentimentality, however, can’t overshadow the inescapable impression left by Paine’s timely doc that, when it comes to pointing fingers over our highways’ glut of inefficient SUVs and Hummers, everyone’s partially to blame.