Chris Paine's documentary Revenge of the Electric Carcharts the race for a new kind of vehicle

TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF: Carlos Ghosn shows off a Nissanelectric car for the automotive paparazzi.

IN ONE SENTENCE: Revenge of the Electric Car is promotional in the way its predecessor, Who Killed the Electric Car?, was prosecutorial. Former Palo Altoan Chris Paine‘s new documentary observes four figures in the electric-car industry as they try to midwife the all-plug-in vehicle.

What a difference a few years makes. Once, the all-electric EV1 gave GM cold feet. After a decade vending oink-mobile juggernauts like the Escalade and the Hummer, they were facing red ink. Returning to a leadership position at GM was a bluff, white-haired legend in the automotive industry: Bob Lutz, known in the press as “The last great American car guy.”

Though not a tree-hugger (“Global warming is a crock of shit”), Lutz championed the new kind of electric car: the Chevy Volt. He did this just as a car called the Leaf was being plotted by Nissan, a company piloted by the formidable Carlos Ghosn.

Meanwhile, here in Silicon Valley, rock-star-like entrepreneur Elon Musk was developing the sexiest, fastest and most pre-production-plagued of the three vehicles. It’s the car of the future, and it may always be: the Tesla.

The film also audits the story of Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a Los Angeles mechanic retrofitting fine vintage sports cars with electric engines. Abbott seems most up against it of all in a one-man, one-dream way the movies like.

Abbott represents the more glamorous tip of an industry. Likely every big city has a mechanic who knows how to do this retrofit on a small scale. Remember hearing that the Geo Metro was the perfect electric car, once you eviscerated it? Would it have been too hippieish to give the small-scalers their due?

Paine presents the unrolling of these new-generation electrics as a scoop. When a helicopter shot takes in the GM Proving Grounds, narrator Tim Robbins says, “We were behind enemy lines … now we were Bob [Lutz’s] guest. The question was, who’s playing who?”

That question didn’t enter my mind. One doubts if a man like Lutz, even at the sunset of his career, was careless about his image or the message he wanted to push. He even had an explanation for how GM went big and went home anyway: “The whole tenor is that we kept insisting on making big trucks. That is wrong on so many levels.” He comes across as genial. And he’s able to have a calm conversation about such rivalries as might exist between GM and Tesla. “I like those guys,” Lutz says.

By contrast, Paine got in deeper in the scenes of Elon Musk’s business life. Is there a What Happened to Tesla? documentary trapped in this movie?

The electric-car magnate receives some strokes, with Jon (Iron Man) Favreau describing him oncamera as the real life model for Tony Stark. But we also hear of a threatened lawsuit and view Musk’s hectic home life: five sons, a divorce and a speedy remarriage.

At a low point, Musk has to tell customers on a waiting list for Teslas that the large deposits they put down didn’t cover the rising cost of the car. Dr. Ian Taras, a Tesla customer, airs his fears that he’s a man who has bought into a “boneless chicken ranch.”

The press, in turn, airs its skepticism that this maverick can keep his company afloat. The journalists include Owen Thomas of Valleywag, Dan Neil of the Wall St. Journal and Ray Wert of Jalopnik.

Just as government mandates helped get the EV1 built, a lot of federal capital is helping this new industry either in loans or tax deferments. I’m not complaining, since I agree with this film that the electric car is the wave of the future—along with more mass transit and more emphasis on making bicycle transit safe and popular.

Libertarian worriers might believe that the government funds are being spent on a fad, on a technology not quite as proven as the fact that cars run, as Lutz puts it, on $1.50-a-gallon gas. Let’s all hold our breaths until that price comes back, since it’ll cut down on C02. Still, speaking in terms of credibility, this film’s mileage may vary.

Revenge of the Electric Car

PG-13; 90 min.

Opens Friday, Aquarius, Palo Alto, and Camera 3, San Jose


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