Thursday, November 3, 2011

Documentaries With Agendas To Save The World: Who Killed The Electric Car?

The Good: Excellent source of information, Intriguing, Easy to watch, Somewhat entertaining
The Bad: Light on supporting evidence, Belabors point, Does not offer solutions
The Basics: Who Killed The Electric Car? is an average documentary with a great deal of information, a lot of opinion, but not enough vision.

I have a friend who works at the local library who spends a bit of his day debating or conversing with me whenever I show up to use the library's computer or return the bevy of media products I have out. He's a cool guy and he's always looking out for things that he thinks might intrigue me. Recently, he handed me a copy of Who Killed The Electric Car? and told me that when he watched it, the first thing he thought of was sharing it with me. This guy's tapped into issues that I care about.

Following a progressive California law passed in the early 1990s, GM began producing an electric car called the EV-1. As infrastructure rose to support the use of electric cars in California, GM and other car companies in California quietly lobbied for the death of the new vehicle and a maintenance of the status quo. What followed was a short, intense battle between the auto manufacturers, the celebrities and other leasees who had EV-1s and the California State Legislature along with municipal governments throughout the state.

Haven't heard of all of this? That's not surprising. One of the things Who Killed The Electric Car? does quite well is expose the apathy to the debate over the electric car. Writer/Director Chris Paine simply articulates the almost complete disregard and lack of strategy GM had for adapting to the California law. The law basically stated that in order to do business in California, car manufacturers had to have a percentage (somewhere around 10%) of their fleet be zero emission/electric cars within a decade. GM's solution was to instantly create an electric car, then do very little to promote the vehicle while their lobbyists fought the law mandating their existence.

Yes, this is the rhetorical equivalent of the child who is upset because mommy and daddy tell him to eat his vegetables slowly moving peas around his plate while denying that he should have to eat any. Who Killed The Electric Car? exposes the auto industry as pawns of the oil industry, stagnant in their complacency to innovate or affect real change in the world. This documentary exposes a fight few people knew ever happened and it becomes a valuable tool for defeating the rabidly anti-environmental forces that continue to destroy the atmosphere, create products that perpetrate the trade deficit, and encourage a U.S. presence in unstable areas of the world (like the Middle East) due to the crippling economic motivation to remain there.

Paine, through narrator Martin Sheen, smartly exposes the players in GM and the government whose actions and/or complacency allowed the car lobby to overturn a law which would have led to real change. The existence and popularity of the electric car barely made waves outside of California so for those of us living in the rest of the country, this documentary provides valuable information for promoting a discussion to raise automobile standards and enacting similar initiatives in the future. Interviews in the documentary include a bevy of celebrities, including Ed Begley Jr. and Mel Gibson who discuss their affinity for the EV-1 and detail the difficulties in obtaining one.

The star witness for the EV-1 is a woman who worked for GM whose love of the EV-1 led her to the innovative strategy of drumming up interest in the EV-1 among prominent celebrities who could raise the profile of the vehicle. It is through her that much of the information on GM and its lack of promotion of the electric car is presented and she seems both credible and articulate on the issue.

The problems with Who Killed The Electric Car? come in the form of the celebrities and this star witness. While Paine illustrates well the fight in California and with GM over the EV-1, he drops the ball on why the other states considering laws like California dropped them. While Paine illustrates the ability for the industry to form an infrastructure around the electric cars, he fails to present enough information to convince those on the fence as to why it was worth so much to kill the electric car as opposed to supporting the existing, growing infrastructure for them. The only answer Who Killed The Electric Car? seems to give is that the oil industry wanted it this way, so the electric car was killed.

But more than that, the techniques used by the director and the subjects of the documentary can come across as downright silly. Only in California, many viewers will say, would there be a line of protesting celebrities fighting for a car no one had heard of. Seeing one of the actresses from "Baywatch" holding signs and passionately fighting for her recalled car airs less like activism and more like a quirky luxury. After all, it must be nice to have the time to hold a vigil outside the GM parking lot without fear of starving to death.

The problem here is that the film might answer the title question of the movie, but it leaves so very many obvious questions dangling before the viewer that it does not even bother to address. So, for example, when GM released the EV-1, it would only lease the vehicles. As Who Killed The Electric Car? illustrates, this allowed GM to later recall the vehicles when the leases expired and destroy them. Anyone who is watching this film with a modicum of debate skills or even a portion of a brain is forced to wonder why the lawmakers were not brought back in to change the law stating that X% of the electric cars had to be SOLD in the state of California. Certainly there were groups lobbied to thwart the law that existed, but the whole idea that the California State Legislature had already PASSED such a measure meant that they would have been biased toward improving said law and making sure it succeeded. Who Killed The Electric Car? completely ignores this concept and rhetorical point.

But for all of its high-minded talk, the issue is very much past tense. While the celebrities involved in supporting the EV-1 watch their vehicles being taken away and destroyed, they ultimately do very little. One person is arrested for trying to block the convoy. But the buck stops there. There are no chases, none of the EV-1 owners flee with their electric car outside the range and jurisdiction of GM's recalls. My point here is that the whole issue seems silly for two reasons: 1. It's pretty much been effectively buried and 2. The greatest supporters of the EV-1 went only so far, they risked something, but not everything for the goal they were fighting for.

Still, Who Killed The Electric Car? remains a valuable resource for those who believe in the importance of energy efficiency and the necessity of saving the environment through smarter automobile standards. This is a must watch for those looking to create the guidelines by which electric cars, more fuel efficient vehicles, and alternate fuel vehicles may be created through legislation or business initiative. Even when the film falls down rhetorically on the debate and the concepts driving the fight for the EV-1 and the environment, it is almost always informative.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Shut Up And Sing
Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price
An Inconvenient Truth


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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