Revenge of the Electric Car Dir. Chris Paine

[Area 23a; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: Who Killed the Electric Car?; Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Revenge of the Electric Car, the sequel to 2006’s Who Killed the Electric Car?, is meant to be a rousing ode to the resurgence of the electric automobile movement, and it’s full of enough style, maybe, to fool you into thinking that it is just that, for awhile. But it’s really a profile of businessmen — a love letter to them wouldn’t be going too far — a movie that myopically forsakes the ideals of the green power movement in favor of portraying four corporate types (or three corporate types and one wannabe) who are seeking, essentially, to promote electric cars for their companies’ profit.

Like Errol Morris’ singular documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control if Morris had been interested in lauding rather than investigating his subjects, Revenge follows a quartet of men who couldn’t be more different in personality but who share a common, professional obsession. In Fast, Morris dug into the lives of a lion tamer, a robotics engineer, a topiary gardener, and an expert on mole rats. The link between these eccentrics was the dedication it took to excel at their respective careers and the way they breathed life into them with air from their own lungs. Revenge similarly parallels four men whose link is the obsession that drives their career, only there’s considerably less fascination to that career: each of these four work in the plain old auto industry, albeit at vastly different levels.

First, and most engaging, is Elon Musk, a kind of sub-Zuckerberg internet wunderkind (he takes credit for creating PayPal before selling it to eBay for $1.5 billion) who has refocused his entrepreneuring eye on the automotive industry by creating Tesla Motors, an electric car company that aims to edge its way into the old man’s world of car manufacturing by flooding the roads with the sexiest electric cars ever seen.

Next, and perhaps equally engaging, comes Bob Lutz, the face of the old man’s car industry: a top VP at GM who’s been integral to the auto industry — specifically its PR front — since the 1960s. Lutz was known for decades as a die-hard apostle of fossil fuels, until his softening in old age led him to spearhead the production of a few GM-produced electric cars.

Then we have Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of both Nissan and Renault, a multi-ethnic consummate businessman who “doesn’t get up in the morning unless there’s money in it.” Ghosn is credited not only with pulling Nissan out of bankruptcy, but also with insisting that the company go electric, with its recently released Leaf.

And last is the requisite underdog, Greg “Gadget” Abbott, an inventor from the far side of Los Angeles who specializes in retrofitting gas-guzzlers with electric engines but has constant trouble with financing his dreams, not to mention with finding a consistent space to work.

Revenge follows the quartet over the year-or-so between early 2007 and late 2008, just before and just after the economic downturn hit. No doubt director Chris Paine had plenty more footage, but he decided to pare it all down to this one critical, dramatic period, a time when lots of money was lost and lots of rich men could be seen squirming. So we watch Lutz go from a wise-cracking super egotist to a humbled old guy in a fancy suit, mumbling reluctantly that it might be time for GM to show a little humility. We watch Musk go from the top of the world, one of the best-known entrepreneurs on the planet, to an 00s version of Preston Tucker, trying desperately to hold on to his flagging car company, as well as his sanity. We watch Gadget’s rundown warehouse, the space in which he converts old cars, go up in an unknown arsonist’s flames. And least interestingly, we watch Ghosn, sitting smugly atop a successful foreign company, loudly but nervously declaring that Nissan is leading the car brigade that will change the world.

Then it all works out for each of them. Lutz retires with a car exec’s vast fortune. Musk watches the stock prices of Tesla Motors shoot through the roof. Ghosn remains the most successful car company CEO on the planet. And Gadget keeps plugging away. Maybe the movement is coming on slow — how many electric cars did you see on the road today? — but watching the people producing them, you’d think the electric car had become as popular as the iPhone.

At best, you could say that Paine has reached the pragmatic conclusion that only Big Business has the resources to put enough electric cars on the road to make a difference in the world (undeniably true). But it’s anything but clear that Paine has squared the money culture of the corporate world he’s investigating with the lofty ideals of electric cars. So the worst you could say is that he was allowed access into the private lives of a few of the richest, most famous key players in the battle that he wants to win, and that he allowed those players — Musk, Ghosn, and especially Lutz — to whisk him, along with his movie, off his feet.

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