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Revenge of the Electric Car (DVD Review)

30 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.15 million
$29.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG-13’ for brief strong language.

Director/co-writer Chris Paine’s sequel to his 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? exists in an interim universe it simultaneously captures, much as last year’s Page One: Inside the New York Times became a permanent time capsule of the newspaper industry at a crossroads of change. Will electric cars catch on in any great measure if the prices can ever come down? I don’t know — especially now that the National Highway Safety Board has opened an investigation of the Chevy Volt battery pack’s alleged tendency to burst into flame during tests (but so far not in real-life situations). But owners of electric cars (such as featured Danny De Vito) seem to like or even love them, and the vehicles certainly tap into an American yearning that will never go away. You know: the one that says to Foreign Oil, “we’re not interested anymore” — but adds that there’s some kids with a Lik-M-Aid stand down the street who may be interested in a little trade.

The earlier documentary ended with General Motors exercising its fine-print prerogative to become a corporate repo man and actually junk its EV1’s as satisfied owners mourned — one of the saddest and even most disgusting real-life scenes from any documentary in recent years. The auto industry, and especially GM, has always espoused a bigger-is-better mentality, and here were these funny little vehicles that had to be recharged not infrequently, kind of like an iPod on wheels. This, of course, was before the economy discovered that it no longer had a tiger in its tank — though GM execs may have still thought so when they famously corporate-jetted their way to Congressional hearings (footage revived here) beckoning for a bailout. It was the kind of bad publicity money can’t buy, and one offshoot was that GM long-timer Bob Lutz — a severe electric car doubter now turned true believer — was given the clout to spearhead development of the Chevy Volt.

I spent my life surrounded by a father and cousins in the auto biz (mostly GM-oriented), and Lutz definitely carries the swagger of the best. (In looks, vocal patterns and delivery, he also reminds me of an older, grayer version of one of my favorites bosses, who directed the promotion department of a CBS affiliate where I labored.) The other principals featured here are Carlos Ghosn, whose Nissan Leaf may determine the fate of Renault/Nissan; Greg “Gadget” Abbott, who soups up existing cars with electric technology and has to survive an arson attack on his makeshift factory; and Elon Musk, an entrepreneur-ish developer of the Tesla who also has a parcel of other interests including five children and a fiancée (later wife) who says she wants more. Paine’s film makes reference to doomed ‘40s auto maker Preston Tucker (who was never able to buck a system that demanded endless resources of capital), and Musk’s home life has some of the hustle-bustle seen in the very underrated Francis Ford Coppola/George Lucas Tucker: The Man and His Dream from 1988.

Paine’s portrait, which includes a nourished menu of DVD extras, isn’t exactly in your face. Dramatically speaking, it lacks the natural story arc of its predecessor and isn’t necessarily the kind of documentary that makes one say, “hey, you gotta see this” to friends. And yet, if you’ve seen the original (which is still burned fairly prominently into my movie mind), you may think it a story that virtually demanded to be filmed, given its back-from-the dead hook.  I think I’d like to own one of these babies or at least go for a test ride with a flashy woman in the passenger seat.

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