Who Killed the Electric Car?
directed by Chris Paine
(Sony, 2006)

In the olden days, the detective, be it Charlie Chan or Nick "The Thin Man" Charles, would simply gather all the suspects in one room and start unleashing the evidence until one of them broke down and confessed -- or pulled a gun.

But life is not so easy for writer-director Chris Paine, who's got a much bigger mystery to solve than Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the lounge. Paine wants to know Who Killed the Electric Car?

Part of his problem, of course, is that most people didn't even know there was an electric car, much less that it had met an allegedly untimely end. But there was, and Paine goes to some length to demonstrate there was, tracing it back to the early 20th century via stock footage and interviewing someone -- Phyllis Diller, of all people -- who remembers riding in one: "It was almost like sitting inside a huge lamp," she recalls.

He charts its loss of the American roadway to the gas guzzler, followed by its unexpected resurgence in the late '80s when a GM model won the Solar Challenge Race in Australia, prompting GM CEO Roger Smith -- hated by all fans of Michael Moore's Roger & Me -- to challenge his company to build an electric car that would appeal as much to consumers as it did to tree-huggers.

Smith's challenge then got a big leg up when the California Air Resources Board mandated in the early '90s that any automaker who wanted to sell cars in California had to make and market a slowly rising percentage of zero-emissions vehicles. And thus was born the electric car -- not the funky-looking things automakers used to drag out for world's fairs every few years, but a sporty-looking sedan capable of netting itself an occasional speeding ticket.

It wasn't long, though, before the electric car developed its detractors, too -- the oil companies and (surprise!) the very automakers that were cranking them out.

Or so goes the story as developed by Paine, an electric car enthusiast himself.

Paine unearths some wonderful film clips -- like Tom Hanks pushing the car on David Letterman -- and interviews a dizzying array of people, from celebrity drivers like Mel Gibson to everyday Californians like Peter Horton and Alexandra Paul, who quickly fell in love with their GM EV1s and were heartbroken when the company took them back.

Yes, you read right: Took them back. As explained by Chelsea Sexton, an EV1 specialist whose job was to market the vehicles, the company began leasing the cars to people in the mid-'90s, then took them back a few years later -- after they'd convinced CARB to water down the zero-emissions mandate, despite California's worsening smog problem (which Paine has no problem detailing) and gone out of their way to convince potential buyers that the cars had inherent problems.

It's here Paine's story really begins to take off, because it's here he can stop simply interviewing people and start covering actual events, such as the discovery by a group of EV1 drivers that the cars GM has been taking back are stored on a lot in Burbank. Paine films the group trying to get access to the cars, then setting up a vigil at the lot when the company declines to discuss what they plan to do with them.

Paine later follows the 70-some cars -- which a company spokesman says will be recycled or used for educational or scientific purposes -- to a test site in Mesa, Ariz., where they are fed into a crusher. This despite the fact the protesters had offered GM $1.9 million for the lot.

But Paine isn't finished. At last he assembles his suspects: the car companies, the oil companies, the batteries (said to be insufficient), CARB, consumers, the government and hydrogen fuel cell technology -- choice of the Bush administration, which, according to Paine, joined the automakers in suing California to end its zero-emissions mandate.

Who's the guilty party? That's for Paine to reveal, but suffice it to say no one 'fesses up or pulls a gun.

It was an interesting year for documentaries, with the video release of Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight and the spectacle of Al Gore pointing out An Inconvenient Truth on movie screens worldwide (and setting box-office records for a documentary as he did). Now you've got one more interesting factual film to add to the pile.

This is a fascinating look at a piece of history that's been kept from our eyes for too long as it is. I'm sold.

by Miles O'Dometer
10 March 2007

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