Revenge of the Electric Car: Tribeca Review

This fascinating sequel provides a surprisingly upbeat prognosis on the transition to electric vehicles.

Director-writer Chris Paine's upbeat follow-up to his controversial 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car" features a number of colorful industry leaders in addition to cameos by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jon Favreau.

What a difference five years makes.

Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car presented a scathing portrait of the U.S. auto industry’s calculated decision to destroy the momentum of electronic vehicles, particularly GM’s recall of its pioneering EV1 model. He’s now returned with a far more upbeat sequel that optimistically depicts how automakers are finally coming around to the concept. Although a bit skimpy on facts, Revenge of the Electric Car, world premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a hugely entertaining portrait of several of the key figures involved.

The filmmaker personalizes the issue by concentrating on a group of colorful industry leaders. They include Bob Lutz, a crusty veteran GM executive who describes himself as “an environmentalist, within limits” who make the decision to champion a long-range vehicle dubbed the Volt; Elon Musk, a driven, Tony Stark-like dot-com millionaire who invests his vast personal fortune on his Silicon Valley start-up car company, Tesla Motors; and Carlos Ghosn, the take-no-prisoners CEO of Nissan who decides to risk his company’s fate on the affordable LEAF.

Also profiled is self-styled inventor and entrepreneur Greg “Gadget” Abbott, who converts gas-run cars into electronic vehicles in his own makeshift facility.

Although the filmmaker delivers some historical context about the subject via clips from his previous effort and even a brief section about legendary failed carmaker Preston Tucker, he’s less interested here in polemics than in providing character studies of his well-chosen subjects, whose calculated pragmatism sharply contrasts with the usual environmental arguments that one would normally expect.

It makes for a refreshing and ultimately very effective change of pace compared with the strident, propaganda approach so often employed by similar documentaries. He clearly enjoyed unfettered access to his subjects, resulting in such squirm-inducing scenes as when Musk hosts a meeting with pre-buyers of his Tesla Roadster who are informed that the price has gone up.

Narrated by Tim Robbins, the film makes concessions to today’s celebrity culture with cameos by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adrian Grenier, Jon Favreau and Danny DeVito, the latter bemoaning the loss years ago of his precious EV1 car.

But while the film comes perilously close at times to resembling reality television in its concentration on personalities rather than issues, the filmmaker’s canny strategy pays off. Even the most skeptical global warming deniers are apt to find themselves rooting for this disparate group of risk-takers who may well be spearheading the long delayed transition from oil reliance to new technology.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (WestMidWest Productions)
Director: Chris Paine
Screenwriters: Chris Paine, P.G. Morgan
Producers: P.G. Morgan, Jessie Deeter
Executive producer: Stefano Durdic
Director of photography: Thaddeus Wadleigh
Editor: Chris A. Peterson
Music: David Robbins
No rating, 90 min