The new documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" plays out like the most predictable Agatha Christie story ever written. Use your common sense to pick the two or three sources most likely to have put the kibosh on the electric car and those are probably the perpetrators accused by director Chris Paine. It's like reading a mystery novel and being just a bit disappointed to discover that the butler really did do it and that the conspiracy was no more complicated than it seemed on the very surface. Paine's rogues gallery of evil corporate interests and money-hungry manufacturers probably points to wrong-doers, but it fails to yield exciting cinema.
After California approved the Zero Emissions Mandate in 1990, car companies were forced to introduce clean-running cars in the state. The most relatively successful of those was GM's EV1, which found its way into the hands of a few loving owners, but never broke out with mainstream drivers, either because of supply, demand, advertising or any variety of other reasons. In 2003, GM began reclaiming its EV1s and refusing to extend leases. By the following year, the cars were all off the road, many being crushed at impound facilities, removing all traces that they ever existed.
Following the advice that Deep Throat gave Bob Woodward, Paine follows the money to all of its standard holders -- General Motors, Exxon, the Bush Administration. Because the story is so close, though, he's never able to even approach a smoking gun. He can't get anybody with direct ties to oil and auto interests to be candid with him, so the film gets bloated on the spin from the villains. It also gets bloated on hot air from the heroes. No matter how fine Paine's intentions, he can't obscure the fact that "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is, at the end of the day, the tragic tale of a bunch of rich people whining because somebody took their trendy toys away.
The film trots out a number of high-profile EV owners (if you count Ed Begley Jr. and Alexandra Paul as celebrities who own electric vehicles, rather than people who are sort of famous mostly for being the kinds of people who own electric vehicles). Their matter-of-fact zealotry toward the cars makes them look more like Moonies than like objective observers. The biggest-name advocate, Mel Gibson, does the filmmakers no favors, looking like a crazed prophet with his long beard and manic gesticulations.
By the end, the film passes judgment on several of the defendants in the murder, finding most of the usual suspects to be guilty, but the only real surprise is Paine's decision to come down against "consumers" as a class-action group. Given the wide-eyed, brainwashed grins of the EV devotees, the choice to demonize regular Americans who either believed the bad press from the anti-EV lobby or failed to believe the glowing praise by new converts like Tom Hanks, just reaffirms that EV ownership is like a cult and that -- in black and white terms -- you're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem. It's a gutsy move on Paine's part to say to complacent audience members, "These corporations are evil, but you should have known better." It's also somewhat alienating, particularly given that the high cost of many electric vehicles and therefore their inaccessibility to anybody below the upper-middle class, is mostly ignored.
I would love for "Who Killed the Electric Car?" to make a difference, to lead the way to cleaner running cars and to a reduction of CO2 emissions and in the direction of saving the world from all of those horrible things that Al Gore warned us about in his documentary. What I'd love nearly as much, though, is for it to have been a good enough movie to have earned my recommendation as such.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times