As a mystery, Who Killed the Electric Car? is far more gripping, involving and fast-moving than The Da Vinci Code.
And it's a documentary, to boot, the latest in a series of provocative ones examining the socio-economic roots of our political and environmental travails. As such it makes a nice companion to An Inconvenient Truth, which is about the worldwide threat of global warming.
Because this is about electric cars and the various forces that conspired to kill them in the marketplace, it is to some extent a California story. In 1990, that smog-clogged state's Air Resources Board mandated that auto manufacturers begin working to sell a certain percentage of non-polluting, zero-emissions-emanating vehicles in the state. The requirements would be 2 percent in 1998, 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.
Because electric cars had long existed on the fringes of the auto industry -- early in the 20th Century they outsold gasoline-powered ones -- California felt confident that auto manufacturers didn't need to reinvent the wheel to meet those demands. Indeed, in 1988 General Motors CEO Roger Smith -- the nemesis of Michael Moore in 1989's documentary Roger & Me but seen as a visionary here -- had even approved development of a prototype electric car, which debuted at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show as the EV1.
It seemed that GM would race that car into the lucrative California market, with other automakers being forced to join in with cars powered by plug-in, rechargeable batteries to stay competitive.
That did happen, sort of.
But as this film by director Chris Paine makes clear, the companies were distrustful of and conflicted about electric cars from the start. Rather than sell them, most leased the cars so they could maintain ownership. (Paine drove a GM EV1 from 1998-2003 and still has a rare Toyota RV4 electric car that he was able to buy from the company.)
Eventually the state backed off the mandate and the automakers recalled their leased electric cars from California consumers. In shocking footage, Paine shows the cars being quarantined and destroyed -- it's like watching a mass murder.
But, really, this film is about something far greater than what happened in California. It's about the forces that conspire to maintain our dependence on gasoline-powered cars, despite their pollution and use of expensive oil from unstable and dangerous Middle East nations.
It also provides a damn effective civics lesson in how entrenched business interests need a push every now and then from the government to put the public good ahead of their reflexively timid self-interests and hunger for fast profits. The film couldn't be timelier nationally as gas pushes over the $3 per gallon mark. Its ramifications reach into every home -- and car -- in America.
The film also shows how those same business interests seek to subvert government interference whenever they feel the public isn't interested. Who Killed the Electric Car? examines how and why that happened in California. One reason is that auto companies chose to push their high-profit, oversized SUVs on a vaingloriously receptive public in the go-go late-1990s rather than the smaller electric cars. A lesson of this movie: Hummers are the opiate of the masses.
This film is rough around the edges production-wise, using as it does lots of old video footage and new sit-down interviews. Paine is no Michael Moore in his approach to filmmaking; he eschews the new wave of collage-style essayist documentaries in favor of a more straightforward and even old-fashioned style. On the other hand his film doesn't have its mind made up in advance, like too many post-Moore muckraking docs, except in thinking that electric cars are a good thing.
It's also got a fun, zippy spirit -- not unlike a little electric car. It takes its murder-mystery format just seriously enough to have attitude. And that distinguishes it from a PBS documentary.
You've also got to admire a film that includes interviews with both Ralph Nader and Phyllis Diller, as well as with a wild-eyed, thick-bearded and very animated Mel Gibson (an electric-car aficionado). An Inconvenient Truth's Al Gore even has a cameo.
Paine lets spokesmen for the seven identified "murder suspects" -- including the former executive director of the state's Air Resources Board and representatives of the auto and petroleum companies -- have their say. As the mystery unfolds, like a game of Clue, you begin to see the motives. Some of them elicit empathy, others outrage.
Auto companies are worried that electric engines need fewer repairs than gasoline-powered ones, hurting the profits of their dealers' service operations. GM believes it tried to sell the cars, but the market just wasn't there. Oil companies fear a new technology that has no need for them, so they try to destroy it. Consumers worry about running out of a battery charge on a highway.
At the same time Paine lets some heroes emerge, including the GM employees who championed the EV1's development and did what they could to promote it. None comes off more radiantly than Chelsea Sexton, an EV1 sales specialist who has become an electric-car activist after being laid off in 2001. When Hollywood turns this story into a feature, I hope Julia Roberts plays her.
Oddly enough, the future for the electric car now looks promising. The SUV market has collapsed and American manufacturers desperately need an alternative. Hybrid vehicles like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, which combine a gasoline engine with an emissions-free electric motor, have proven hot sellers. Mitsubishi and Subaru announced in 2005 that they'll reintroduce fully electric cars by 2010. And smaller, independent companies are moving forward. So maybe a few years from now Paine can do a sequel -- Who Resurrected the Electric Car? Grade: A-