Saturday, April 23, 2011

#TribecaFest Review: "Revenge of the Electric Car"

Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? was an earnest and well-meaning documentary, though one that was ultimately harmed by its infomercial iconography and reliance on whiny, C-list celebrities as protagonists. His follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, is a far stronger picture; given three years’ access to the powers-that-be behind the auto industry, Paine’s new film is less about full-throated advocacy and more about good, solid documentary storytelling. It’s a switch that suits him well.

Who Killed was primarily concerned with the EV1, GM’s attempt to produce a successful electric car; one of the many in the company who didn’t support it was Bob Lutz, vice-chairman and auto industry legend, a cigar-chomping straight-talker with some problematic opinions (he dismisses global warming as a “crock of shit”). But GM is propelled back into the seemingly niche market by two developments: the creation of a sleek, fast, long-ranging electric car from the upstart Tesla company, bankrolled by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, and Nissan’s efforts to make an economically viable electric vehicle, the Leaf. Lutz ends up making a rather dramatic switch from naysayer to booster, getting behind GM’s development of a plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt.

The access Paine is given this time around—to board rooms, proving grounds, and auto shows—proves vital to the success of the film. Sure, he may be getting used a bit, embraced as a promotional partner and, the companies presumably hope, silenced as a critic. But he ends up with one of the most valuable of all documentary elements: interesting “characters.” The three men that become the focus of the film—GM’s Lutz, Tesla’s Musk, and Nissan’s smart and confident CEO, Carlos Ghosn—are unique and fascinating individuals. By intercutting between them, as they nip at each other’s heels in the race to get their vehicles to the marketplace, Paine generates real suspense and real stakes.

The doc also has a fiction film’s sense of freedom to character development; Paine looks at Musk’s battles, in and out of the courtroom, with Tesla’s original founder, Martin Eberhard, and as his company keeps pushing back its delivery date and even upping the price to its original buyers for their still-undelivered cars, he starts to seem a little shady. Contrary to our original expectations of the two seemingly opposite men, by the third act we’re sympathetic to the candid and fascinating Lutz, while regarding Musk, fairly or not, as something of a hustler.

 Revenge of the Electric Car dawdles a bit, and some of its sidebars don’t really propel the story forward—Musk’s personal life is singularly uninteresting, and while there’s a place in this story for those who convert gas cars to electric, Paine never finds a way to work his converter in. The narrative just grinds to a halt when he goes to check in with electro-fitter Greg “Gadget” Abbott. We wait patiently for Paine to get back to his “Big Three.” They’re where the story is.

"Revenge of the Electric Car" screened yesterday and today at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will screen again on Wednesday 4/27 and Saturday 4/30.

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