Chris Paine’s first documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? was very well received by critics. It focused on the dilemma posed by GM’s decision to repossess all of the EV1 electric cars it had produced, and simply crush all of them despite overwhelmingly positive reception of the vehicle by the limited few who got a lease for one, and despite offers to purchase the cars outright for a significant sum of money. It was a PR catastrophe for GM within the world of electric car advocates, and a move so bungled that even if there had been business justification, that it became a fiasco explicable only in terms of conspiracy. The documentary relied on interviews with a variety of different voices who had bits and pieces of input on both the central mystery and the tangential questions about viability of electric cars on the market in general.
Paine’s follow up film Revenge of the Electric Car never approaches the appeal of the first documentary. It frames itself by explaining that in the wake of the first film, the filmmakers were granted unprecedented access inside GM to see the development of the next generation of electric cars from the inside. It’s too easy to claim that they sold out in order to get the story, or even to make the more nuanced argument that it’s impossible to be so close to a subject over time and not develop sympathy. The first isn’t really true because there isn’t much of a story being told here at all, and the second would make the film much better than it actually is.
The film ends up being about four individuals in the field of electric cars rather than really being about electric cars themselves in any meaningful way. It follows around Bob Lutz of GM, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, and Greg Abbott, an entrepreneur making a business of converting cars to electric.
While purporting itself to be about the development of the next generation of electric cars, the film really is just a set of CEO bios, letting them talk to the camera with high minded self-importance. There are a few repeated interjections by talking heads, though none of them do more than play like half-assed Mystery Science Theater, and none of them have credentials enough to make up for their lack of anything interesting to say. The first film had interviews with Ralph Nader and James Woolsey. This one has asides from the guy who writes about cars for the Wall Street Journal.
The film has two overriding problems dragging it down. First, the film is really just a bunch of marketing, with never any question of engineering. Look, electric cars aren’t any more difficult to build than a normal car. In a lot of ways, they’re easier because a lot of that complicated stuff under the hood just isn’t necessary when it’s a pure electric engine. There is one engineering question for electric cars, exactly one challenge that trumps everything else: the batteries. The story of making electric cars work is the story of making batteries more efficient. There is nothing in this film about batteries, nothing about the engineering challenges involved in them. If you’re going to avoid talking about the only engineering challenge of electric cars, then all that’s left to talk about is the personalities involved.
And the personalities are a terrible crutch for this film. The filmmaker either made a subversively brilliant mockery of three of the four personalities or is so completely out of touch that he thought we actually sympathized with these people the way that they are portrayed in the film. By every impression I had from the film, we were supposed to be rooting for these people, and yet by the end of the documentary I wanted to take a bath in raw crude oil just out of spite. Let’s run through them just for completeness sake.
Greg Abbott, our indie guy who just wants to make a living individually converting sports cars to electric has his shop burned down to kick off the film. He loses everything; his home was in the same building, and a half dozen different classic cars in various stages of conversion. He had no insurance and lost several hundred thousand dollars. But don’t worry, his family and friends loaned him more money. Which he then blew on a building which was so soaked with toxic chemicals that he had to close up shop again. By the end of the film we’re supposed to be happy that Abbott fought through adversity and managed to convert a Porsche and drive it out to Palm Springs. If you note, none of this has anything to do with electric cars, it has to do with a business owner who can’t manage basics of insurance and due diligence.
The other three are similarly as divorced from the nominal topic of the film. Musk spends the duration of the film redefining just how smug a human being can be, while running a car company that burns through hundreds of millions of dollars and can produce nothing but hundred thousand dollar lemons. Musk talks big at every turn, all snake oil and no medicine. The company ends up kept in business by a several hundred million dollar loan from the Department of Energy, a development that the film portrays as a victory for the small guy, but which made me want to write a letter of protest to my congressman.
Ghosn is the least glimpsed, but is nothing but empty buzz words and platitudes. They’re taking risks, they’re playing to win, they’re going to revolutionize the synergy of global commerce.
The only “protagonist” who comes out undiminished is Bob Lutz, who contrary to all expectations as the snarling legendary Detroit car executive is entertaining as hell. He’s every stereotype of the cigar-chomping executive, but somehow manages to be the most human of all these characters. He’s snarky, irreverant, bitchy, and yet is strangely kind to Musk in their scenes together when it’s clear that the younger guy is completely out of his depths. Oh, Lutz doesn’t believe in global warming and doesn’t give a damn about electric cars, but he thinks there’s a market for them so he’ll make them.
Overall, this was a terribly disappointing film, with little beyond the surface gloss to do with electric cars at all. Instead we’re treated to simple glossy portraits of some executives and a failing small business owner. There’s nothing cohesive here, no real statement.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.