Who Killed the Electric Car?

The timing couldn’t have been better. With gas prices hovering around three bucks a gallon and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth just leaving theaters, Who Killed the Electric Car? hits the mark, but unfortunately may get lost among the summer blockbusters.

Charting the celebrated debut, mysterious recall and ultimate demise of the EVI — GM’s electric vehicle — filmmaker Chris Paine presents a whodunit that implicates the usual suspects: oil companies, automakers and politicians.

Narrated by Martin Sheen, the doc starts with a rather dry history lesson about the early development of the electric car and its rival, the internal combustion engine. Concerns about the global oil supply led to a modest revival of electric battery technology in the late ’80s; in 1990, California passed the Zero Emissions Mandate and GM responded with an extremely limited-release of the all-electric EV1. The car was restricted to a lease-only program, and devotees were surprised to see their vehicles repossessed without an option to buy after only a few years. More perplexing was the clandestine destruction of the cars. Then, lobbyists from the automotive and oil industries convinced California to repeal the groundbreaking Zero Emissions law.

This is a rational and perceptive examination of how corporate and political forces and consumer indifference killed off a revolutionary new product. The film wears its left-leaning sensibilities on its sleeve, but mostly plays fair with the subject, allowing detractors to answer Paine’s charges and make their case.

Paine’s murder-mystery approach is clever, but his narrative is clumsily constructed. Buried beneath third-generation stock footage and endlessly earnest testimonials, there’s an intriguing story — but his execution isn’t nearly as incisive as it should be. It probably sounds funny to say it, but without an engaging and passionate host like Al Gore to connect the dots, Who Killed the Electric Car? comes across as unfocused.

Despite a list of articulate talking heads (Ralph Nader, numerous automotive engineers and S. David Freeman, former energy advisor to Jimmy Carter), Mel Gibson ends up being the most animated person in the film, prattling on and gesticulating wildly about how much he loved his electric car. His bug-eyed enthusiasm is almost enough alone to sell you on the vehicle.

But amid the politicians, EV1-driving celebrities and high-profile executives interviewed, you can’t help but wonder where the regular joes are? The point is never made that electric vehicles like the 2-seater EV1 were financially out of reach for most consumers. Along with the film’s silly attempts to humanize the vehicle — staging a mock funeral, following a former EV1 sales manager as she visits one of her "babies" at a car museum — Paine leaves himself open to the criticism that his film is about a bunch of rich celebs complaining that GM took their new toy away.

To his credit, the documentary presents diligently researched arguments that avoid the deadly slide into incomprehensible techno-babble and unwieldy automotive data. He makes an excellent case for how corporate greed and consumer ignorance once again trumped the greater good. He also manages to present potentially dry subject matter in an entertaining fashion. There are scenes in the film where you’ll find yourself simultaneously amused and infuriated.

With the recent success of hybrid vehicles, one can only hope change is on the way. Nevertheless, Paine’s film will give you pause. While it’s no surprise oil companies will do just about anything to keep their profits rolling in, it’s startling to see how much time and energy automakers devoted to instilling consumer doubt and undermining the infrastructures that supported their own invention. Who Killed the Electric Car? is a slyly sinister warning about how things really work in America — take notice.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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