Titans of Industry

Fascinating characters make up for the weak premise of documentary 'Revenge of the Electric Car'

Who Killed the Electric Car? asked its timely question in 2006. The documentary chronicled General Motors Corp.'s somewhat daring experiment with an electric vehicle in the 1990s and the car's ultimate failure, even though the thousand or so who did drive a GM EV1 sang its praises.

You won't find an EV1 on the road anymore; while some were given to museums, the majority were crushed, many at the GM proving grounds in Mesa. So why was this car too dangerous to have on the road? GM rebutted the film's claims that oil companies were leveraging GM to ax the program, saying instead that the line just wasn't profitable, and that's probably closer to the truth than what is in the documentary. After all, it was only two years later that GM was back in the electric-car game, along with Nissan and Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors—all of which meant that filmmaker Chris Paine had the story for a sequel.

Revenge of the Electric Car does not have the accusatory, almost-conspiratorial tone that the first movie occasionally struck. Maybe time has calmed Paine's anger, or maybe a mass-market electric car really wasn't ready for prime time 10 years ago. Then again, because Paine has access to executives of GM, Tesla and Nissan for Revenge, maybe he's getting a more-complete story.

While the first film provided an interesting history lesson and made the cultural and environmental case for electrics, the sequel is almost all about the bottom line: Can large corporations like Nissan and General Motors actually afford to put electric vehicles on the road? And can Tesla really afford to lose millions of dollars a month waiting for consumers to spend six figures on its product?

The personalities featured here are larger than life: Tesla's Elon Musk has been credited (both in this film and elsewhere) as an inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of billionaire Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. He's young, enterprising, brash, loaded and hates to be wrong. Bob Lutz is nearing the end of his career and back for a third tour of duty at GM after stints at BMW, Ford and elsewhere. He's the anti-Elon Musk, a car guy through and through. Carlos Ghosn is the man credited with saving Nissan in the late 1990s, and he's so popular in Japan that his life story has been turned into a comic book. Ghosn is seen in the documentary trying to outflank both Tesla and GM by offering the Nissan Leaf, a mass-produced, affordable zero-emissions car.

And those are really the three most-likely scenarios for success in that product line: Go all in (Nissan), offer an appetizer (GM) or go outside the norm (Tesla). Paine spends some time with a tinkerer in Los Angeles who says it's cheaper to retrofit existing cars with electric technology, but it's certainly not as practical for the everyday consumer.

Paine's access to these titans of industry extends over several years. Lutz was notoriously against electric vehicles just years before he endorsed GM's move to pursue the Chevrolet Volt. And he was its most-loyal supporter during development, which happened at the same time the federal government was giving GM a massive bailout. We see a lot of that play out while Lutz meets with other furrowed-brow GM executives. Ghosn pushed ahead in a big way, committing billions of dollars in a down economy to the Leaf, and Musk faced the same market setbacks as everyone else, almost from the moment he drove the first Tesla Roadster at its unveiling. As a new company, there were other headaches, too.

What's missing throughout is—appropriate for a movie about the car industry—a finish line. For a film with a title like Revenge of the Electric Car, it would be nice if there was some. In fact, it's still too early to tell what the marketplace will do with electrics. About 15,000 Leafs have been sold, and that's more than double what the Tesla Roadster and the Volt have done combined. Hard to call that vengeance.

Ultimately, it appears that Chris Paine's rather soft point is that you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Of course, the electric car is nothing new. Porsche developed one more than 100 years ago. So the fact that electric cars may finally develop a foothold isn't exactly noteworthy. Not yet.

Even if it is ultimately fairly empty, Revenge of the Electric Car is still entertaining. Paine fills it with interesting characters who are worth screen time. More than his premise, as it turns out.

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