Review: Who Killed the Electric Car? Directed by Chris Paine. Sony Pictures, 2006. 92 minutes.
“In the end, the fight for the electric car was a fight for the future.” This all-encompassing statement, given three-quarters of the way through Who Killed the Electric Car?, reveals the heart of the matter, the kernel of the film: the electric car is not just an alternative mode of transport, but a tool for radically changing political power, militaristic endeavors, economic strongholds, social attitudes, scientific accomplishments and a vast array of hopeful futures in America and beyond.
The movie begins with a mock funeral for the EV1, a GM-produced electric car that could have solved multiple ecological problems from oil consumption to zero emissions. Celebrities, including Alexandra Paul, organized the funeral as a publicity stunt to bring attention to the fact that these cars were literally being killed off. The introduction is powerful, setting the stage for how the electric car’s demise came about.
Via interviews with politicians, lobbyists, former employees, inventors, actors, consumers, owners, scientists and engineers, the story of the modern electric car’s downfall is investigated, discussed and, finally, the verdict is delivered: we have only ourselves to blame. It was a tough verdict to swallow, but we are not alone.
The movie identifies seven suspects who collectively helped kill the electric car: the batteries themselves, the oil and auto industries, the government, the California Air Resources Board, hydrogen fuel cell technology, and finally the consumer. All these possibilities are researched to the full extent.
Among the more charming of on-screen contributors were Chelsea Sexton, activist and EV1 Sales Specialist with the electric-car program at GM, Iris, and Stanford Ovshinsky, who discovered and developed the batteries for electric vehicles, and S. David Freeman, former Energy Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Animated commentators, these people believed whole-heartedly in the project, exhibiting emotion on the subject and inviting us to consider, along with them, the ludicrous ending of an almost perfect answer to what is currently one of the world’s toughest questions: how do we cut our transportation emissions?
The director was also able to interview some who were more directly involved in cutting the wires. Watching Alan C. Lloyd, former Chairman of California Air Resources Board squirm as he defended his decision to modify the ZEV mandate from availability of zero-emission vehicle by automakers by 1998 to PZEV (partial zero-emission vehicles) and hybrids by 2008 was like watching a fox trying to outrun a pack of hounds.
As an aside, perhaps the most compelling and embarrassing contributor was Mel Gibson. (At least God loves him).
Most of the film’s budget was spent on flying a rented helicopter over the Arizona desert to find where the EV1’s were taken after they were confiscated. Any word of their whereabouts was consistently denied to their seekers. The determination of the filmmakers in uncovering information seems equal to the gutsiness of other recent documentaries, especially SuperSize Me, Morgan Spurlock’s journey to health problems via the Big Mac. The goal was a risky; as viewers of the films, that’s the kind of tension we want to see.
In a related incident, the movie includes a story of a television news show at a junkyard where cars are being “shredded.” The show’s host happens onto brand new electric cars sitting off to the side. They ask, “What are these cars doing here, will they be shredded too?” The director of the junkyard gives only a knowing shrug. The camera crew captured something completely unexpected, true reality TV.
I’m not sure if it was the fatherly voice of Martin Sheen narrating, or the myriad of details, but the film made me sleepy. The narration often seemed like a jumble of words sounding like the hum of a battery. Or was it the hum of an engine?
When I wasn’t nodding off, though, the content I did see was interesting and infuriating. Luckily, the website is full of much the same information as the movie, sans the textured voice of Martin Sheen. It is a graphically innovative site and well organized. The information is accessible, easy to read and engaging. And just as enraging. How can we be so silly?! Are we really that money-grubbing? As someone who (still) believes in the inherent goodness of people, I am (once-again) disappointed.
Perhaps the most invigorating part of the film is seeing an activist group of owners and celebrities discovering a parking lot full of EV1s. With knowledge of the cars’ impending doom, the group goes on a rotating watch, monitoring when or if they will be hauled away to the slaughter. Drama ensues when three or four trucks and trailers arrive like soldiers to take the cars to a final resting place.
So in the end, who is to blame for the demise of the electric car? This film wasn’t a hopeful project for the future; on that point, the movie was clear: the electric car is here, now, as we speak, today – no more waiting. We can finally evolve.
But some people (I won’t reveal who is to blame, although it’s easy enough to guess) just weren’t ready to let go of a lot of money and felt that the rest of the world wasn’t ready to evolve that far or that fast. These money-grubbers acted with fear tactics and manipulated the minds of the public without our permission, pulling the rug from underneath a truly great scientific advancement, one that is both practical and applicable to everyone. And while environmental choices may be difficult because they call for significant changes in our individual lifestyles, this choice actually asked us to do less, to spend less. And for that, for being too good, any hope of progress was killed.