Film Review: REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR (documentary directed by Chris Paine)

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by John Topping on October 12, 2011

in Film


When Dan Neil—the eloquent car-guy columnist who formerly wrote for Car and Driver, AutoWeek and The Los Angeles Times, and who now writes for The Wall Street Journal—says that he’ll never buy a gasoline-powered car again, you just have to take notice. “The only way forward is electric cars,” he says. If you notice that he says this while he’s driving an obviously gas-powered Ford Mustang convertible, you realize that he’s probably making a prediction, not a promise.

Dan Neil writes about cars. He drives many different cars on loan from manufacturers. When Dan Neil is ready to buy his next car, he predicts, there will probably be plenty of gasoline-free cars to choose from.

Double-takes of this sort come often in Revenge of the Electric Car, Chris Paine’s intimate documentary that follows the lives of people who play with cars on a very grand scale. Some of the things they say take on a completely different meaning when you consider who is saying them.

Revenge of the Electric Car – directed by Chris Paine – Movie Review by Gil Dawson

So when Bob Lutz—known variously as “Mr. Detroit,” “Mr. Horsepower,” and “Maximum Bob”; born in Switzerland and educated at Berkeley, with a history of working at the vice-presidential level for Chrysler, Ford, BMW, and GM—says that the electrification of the automobile is inevitable, you realize that this man might be making a promise, not a prediction. He could make it happen. Bob Lutz has a long history of championing new car models, some of which (the Viper, the Sierra, the Explorer, the GTO, the Malibu, the Camaro) became quite successful. When the footage in this film was shot, Bob Lutz (now retired) was championing GM’s new hybrid, the Volt.

But Bob Lutz is strongly implicated in Chris Paine’s earlier documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, for GM’s decision to crush the EV-1. He is also widely quoted as having said of the Prius, “Hybrids make no economic sense.”  Yet the Volt is a hybrid. What helped Bob see the light?

Seems it was Elon Musk. Born in South Africa and educated in Pennsylvania, Elon sold PayPal to eBay to start Tesla Motors, a Silicon-valley-based manufacturer of premium electric cars. When a fellow like that says, “Let me run Detroit!” that’s neither a promise nor a prediction; it’s a challenge. “Elon Musk and the guys [at Tesla] are learning what it takes to put automobiles together,” says Bob Lutz patronizingly, “It ain’t easy.” But Elon stirred something in the testosterone-laden GM brass. Bob got whatever he needed to build the Volt.

As relief against these high-powered illuminati, Greg Abbot (aka “Reverend Gadget” or, more recently, simply “Gadget”) and his wife Charlotte Jackson live in the same building where they convert gasoline-powered cars to electric propulsion. Folk heroes of the modern electric car movement, they represent the thousands of individual enthusiasts who are not waiting for the big guys. They convert cars to electric with a passion driven by something other than a solid business plan.  When Charlotte says, “We can all have one,” you wince at her naïveté. Then you realize that this level of passion multiplied by thousands of devotees could, just possibly, overtake the car companies.

Not if they can help it, of course.

Carlos Ghosn was born in Brazil, attended high school in Lebanon and earned engineering degrees in France. He speaks four languages and changed the company language of Japan-based Nissan (where he is the Chairman and CEO) from Japanese to English. (He is also the Chairman and CEO of Renault in France.) He has eliminated 21,000 jobs and is credited with saving Nissan from bankruptcy in one year. When Carlos says to his staff, “Our difference is, is it affordable? And is it mass-marketed? That means that you are going to be able to find it at every country, at every dealership you want,” you might think he is trying to convince investors…until you realize that he is giving direction to the Nissan company to design, build and deploy the Nissan Leaf.

Revenge of the Electric Car – directed by Chris Paine – Movie Review by Gil Dawson

Revenge of the Electric Car is more than a history lesson. It is a sensitive portrait of a few fascinating people.  Chris Paine has somehow managed to embed his film crew deep into what we EV enthusiasts used to call “enemy territory,” back when “they” were taking our cars away. We get to see the boardrooms and the prototype reveals and the assembly floors.  We also get to see their humanity and, perhaps, feel a little sympathy.

Revenge of the Electric Car is an intimate, longitudinal documentary. People on the screen seem to forget there is a camera present. They speak quite candidly, sometimes directly to us, sometimes ignoring us completely, in very personal moments, in their boardrooms, at their homes, even during lunch. Like a longitudinal study, Chris’s crew revisits our protagonists over a span of time as their dreams develop. We get to watch grateful surprises and grave disappointments erupting on some important faces—magically captured on film at their very moments of revelation. It is exciting. And we get to be there when it happened.

It should perhaps be mentioned that, while the movie focuses on four major players in the electric car business, other electric car development efforts—the Mini E comes immediately to mind—are notably missing. What it may lack in breadth, however, Revenge makes up in sensitivity and depth.

In a touching moment, Bob Lutz “happens” (on camera) to run into Elon Musk at the North American Auto Show in Detroit. The two tour the show, then end up at the Leaf exhibit. They like it. They are not so much competitors as collaborators, building electric cars together.

The opening title sequence will be a happy delight for gearheads. Shots of an assembly line tightly edited to make car-sized precision robots and the movie’s titles both dance to fast-tempoed classical music (Grieg’s “In The Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt) is pure pleasure.

Revenge of the Electric Car – directed by Chris Paine – Movie Review by Gil Dawson

The sound in this movie is particularly impressive. Considering the awful recording environments they had to work with, sound producers Tyler Bender and Sean Demers somehow made every word intelligible.

Nicely narrated by Tim Robbins, with cameo appearances by Danny DeVito and Rick Wagoner, Revenge is a high-quality, entertaining documentary. Editing and music create an appropriate aura of suspense and revelation at just the right instants. Kudos to Raul Campos for picking some great tunes and to Chris Paul for creating additional music. It all fits together beautifully. It is even imaginable that people who don’t count themselves as electric car enthusiasts might enjoy it.

photos courtesy of Tribeca Pictures

Revenge of the Electric Car
U.S.A. | 88 minutes | PG-13
opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 21, 2011
followed by national rollout
for more info, visit Revenge of the Electric Car

{ 1 comment }

David Murray October 13, 2011 at 9:01 am

I just wish I could see the darned film! So far there isn’t even a date set as to when people in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area can see it.

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