Recharged and powerful
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov. 25, 2011
When last we heard from Chris Paine, the filmmaker had declared the electric car dead and buried. Yet despite the finality of the title of Paine's first documentary ("Who Killed the Electric Car?"), viewers of that 2006 film - which tracked the auto industry's abortive, halfhearted efforts to build a viable alternative to the gasoline engine - might be forgiven for harboring a glimmer of hope.
In the first documentary, electric cars seemed a little too cool - despite their high cost, short battery life and low horsepower - to ever completely write them off. The movie's parade of "green" Hollywood celebrities touting the virtues of electric cars made them seem sexy, if hard to get.
More recent events have made them seem not just sexy, but inevitable. As Wall Street Journal automotive columnist Dan Neil says in Paine's solid new documentary, "Revenge of the Electric Car," electric-powered vehicles represent "the only way forward." Neil acts as Paine's tour guide in "Revenge," a compelling - and, yes, even dramatic - tale of the electric car's resurrection from the grave. And Neil is a self-described lover of the internal-combustion engine.
Make that ex-lover. Rising gas prices, the growing scientific consensus about the connection between fossil-fuel emissions and climate change, and the implosion of Detroit's gas-guzzler-based business model have, according to Neil, made the notion of hybrid and all-electric vehicles seem more attractive than ever.
Rather than focusing on nuts and bolts, however, "Revenge" wisely structures its story around four pioneers of the electric car's second wave: Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, an electric-car start-up; Bob Lutz, a former General Motors vice chairman whose company developed the battery-powered Volt; Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan, maker of the electric Leaf; and Greg "Gadget" Abbott, who retrofits existing gasoline-powered cars to run on batteries.
Of the four narrative threads, Musk's is the most compelling. And not just because the businessman - who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002 and then poured a lot of that money into the first company to make an electric muscle car - is such a visionary. Yes, he does kind of seem like one, but at times it feels as if Paine is presenting him in that light because the filmmaker is one of his customers. There's a very funny scene in which Musk is shown in a warehouse, agonizing about mechanical and production problems that have delayed delivery of the Tesla, and he comes across the very car that Paine has put a deposit on - but not yet received.
There's nothing wrong with a documentarian advancing a point of view. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" made clear Paine's sympathies for electric-powered vehicles. At times, however, "Revenge" strays a little too close to infomercial territory.
Lutz is another entertaining subject, especially because he's on record as having originally pooh-poohed the idea of electric cars, just a few years ago. His newfound zeal for the technology has the intensity of a religious conversion.
Ghosn (rhymes with "tone") might be less warm and cuddly than Lutz, but he, too, makes an effective evangelist for the electric highway.
Perhaps the most succinct point that Paine makes comes in visual form, near the end of the film. Abbott, whose converted electric cars are the greenest of all in the film (because they're recycled), is shown taking a spin in one. Paine's camera follows him as he stops to take a photo near a cheesy roadside sculpture of a dinosaur.
The picture makes for a powerful visual metaphor for those who resist the tide of history.
Contains one brief outburst of crude language.