(director/writer: Chris Paine; cinematographer: Thaddeus Wadleigh; editors: Michael Kovalenko/Chris A. Peterson; music: Michael Brook; cast: Martin Sheen (Narrator); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Jessie Deeter; Sony Pictures Classics; 2006)

“Hits home on all cylinders.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chris Paine’s social conscience issue-oriented documentary hits home on all cylinders in making its case for America’s failed energy policy. It’s one of those necessary films that offers a public service message that’s filled with vital information rather than being a sexy entertainment vehicle. To spice it up and show that the blame could be spread around and is not confined to only one culprit, Paine films it as a passionate murder mystery leaving no doubt in the conclusion who are the guilty parties.

The story is set in California, a state with severe problems caused by man-made pollution. Their bad air crisis prompted a heroic civic-minded group to champion for a cleaner car to save the environment and stop America’s dependency on foreign oil. When the state legislature mandated some ten years ago that cars in the future pass their stringent zero tolerance policy for emissions, with the aim to be emissions free by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003, GM under pressure came out with a well-built electric car, the EV1, that had its limits and cost a prohibitive for the middle-class $35,000, but was a giant step in the right direction. They could go fast, produced no exhaust fumes, needed few if any internal repairs and ran without need for fuel. They could go for 60 to 80 miles before the need for a recharge, and soon a better battery was developed that could go at least 100 miles and still later the battery in the lap top could be used that goes for 300 miles. The few who heard about the car (they were not advertised) and bought it were very satisfied and wanted to buy it after their lease was up, but GM refused to sell it to them. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson speak lovingly of the car, as do the frustrated ordinary customers who possessed the car only to see it taken back by GM and secretly crushed. Some ten years later this sensible functional car of the future is all but gone. Martin Sheen narrates this sad murder tale of all those who had a hand in making sure the electric car would not survive and that the greedy auto and oil industries would continue making outrageous profits, and of the few who valiantly tried to rally the sleeping consumer and tried to get political support from the spineless politicians but were frustrated in achieving their aims by corporate duplicity.

Paine’s infuriating inquiry rightfully implicates oil companies, auto manufacturers, the federal government, the California Air Resources Board and the unaware consumer in killing the electric car. Rich in details in building its case against these killers, the film offers a fair presentation of what went wrong and leaves us pondering what the future has in store for us if we don’t pursue with a sense of urgency and confidence a car that runs on alternative fuels. The “Electric Car” presents a compelling argument that the hydrogen cell technology, as the successor to the internal combustion engine, is not the way to go because the technology would never come to fruition. It compares this chase for the hydrogen car, offered by the malevolent Bush administration as their answer to solving the energy problem, as just as futile a response as the racing greyhounds trying to catch the mechanical rabbit–as experts point out that the hydrogen car will turn out to be the greatest blunder, yet, by the auto industry.

Who Killed the Electric Car? Poster