Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Revenge of the Electric Car (March 9th and 11th at the Cleveland Museum of Art)

[REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR screens Friday March 9th at 7:00 pm and Sunday March 11th at 1:30 pm at the Cleveland Museum of Art.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

At the end of Chris Paine's 2006 documentary WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?, things weren't looking too good for the titular vehicle. In the mid 90s GM experimented with a limited number of completely electric cars in California, making them available for lease but not sale. This was to satisfy a state's Zero-emissions vehicle mandate, since weakened, that included a provision saying auto manufacturers had to produce an electric car in order to do business in California. Once the provision was removed circa 2003, GM reclaimed the leased vehicles as quickly as they could and destroyed them. In addition, the Bush administration threw their support behind hydrogen cell vehicles as the alternative fuel cars of choice. The electric car may not have been dead, but it certainly wasn't in robust health.

Somehow, despite having the deck seemingly stacked against it, the electric car managed to stage a rally. Not only did it survive, it now seems inevitable that electric cars will be the future of the automotive industry. So far it's mainly been hybrids like Toyota's Prius and GM's Volt, but Nissan has a mass-market all electric vehicle (the Leaf) on the market, and even new auto companies like Tesla have gotten into the game. How did this happen?

Perhaps sensing a sea change, Chris Paine kept following the story of electric vehicles after his original film was finished, and for REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR he was actually granted a fair amount of access by both the big auto makers and the little guys as well. The story he captures on film is a wild roller coaster, not surprising considering the time frame coincides with the economic crisis that sent the U.S into a major recession and resulted in the auto industry bailout.

The major players at Ford and Nissan are interesting for the way that these profit-first companies have come around to the idea of electric cars, particularly GM in light of what we saw in the first film. GM's Bob Lutz or Nissan's Carlos Ghosn are tree huggers; they decided to pursue this direction because they saw the potential for making money, and in the bargain generating a fair amount of goodwill from a population that is increasingly concerned about both the environmental and political impact of relying so heavily on oil.

Those guys are interesting, but the guy who really grabbed my attention here was Elon Musk. Musk made his fortune off of Paypal. After selling that company, he went into the commercial space travel business before eventually drifting into electric cars. He's definitely a man with vision who works outside of the traditional corporate avenues, but that doesn't necessarily make him any less of a ruthless asshole. Still, an fascinating guy who, even if his company fails, played a large role in inspiring others to get on board with electric vehicles.

If you're looking for someone whose motivations appear mostly altruistic, the film also profiles Gregg “Gadget” Abbot. Abbot is more of an artist/hippie type who, rather than trying to make new electric cars, converts old internal combustion vehicles over to battery power. It's cheaper and uses less resources, but there's only so much one guy and his wife living in a trailer can do.

This is a solidly made documentary that makes its case without inserting too much personal opinion into the mix. No doubt there's a bit of a liberal slant here, but whatever director Paine's personal ideolgoy, the facts are hard to deny. Electric cars just make sense on every single level, and if the harshest criticism conservatives like Newt Gingrich can make is that you can't install a gun rack in a Volt (which turned out to be false), their protestations aren't going to count for much. 3 out of 4 stars.

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