'And We Go Green': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF

Leonardo DiCaprio serves as producer on Fisher Stevens and Malcolm Venville’s documentary profiling electric race car grand prix competitions that showcase renewable energy technology.

Since their inception, motorsports competitions have relied on the resounding rumble of gas-powered race cars tensed for the green flag and the intensifying shriek of howling engines as they tear around a track through clouds of exhaust to entice and entertain spectators. The prospect of replacing that visceral experience so beloved by both drivers and fans with the high-pitched whir and whine of electric race cars incapable of duplicating that kind of sensory overload seems like a tricky proposition.

Regardless, the FIA, organizer of the world-renowned Formula One competitions, is gambling that there’s a nascent fan base for similarly staged all-electric “Formula E” events that can popularize zero-emissions vehicles for a wider audience. The team behind And We Go Green appears to be onboard with that wager, as eco-doc producer Leonardo DiCaprio (Ice on Fire) and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens (The Cove) shift gears to make the case for accelerating the automotive industry’s transition to renewable energy.

And We Go Green certainly highlights that sustainability message with conviction, but what Stevens and co-director Malcolm Venville have achieved is even more effective, a thoroughly involving electric vehicle motorsports documentary, with all of the thrilling action, colorful personalities and imminent danger that the genre implies. As a producer on The Cove, Stevens and director Louie Psihoyos converted an investigative inquiry on dolphin slaughter into a tense eco-thriller that galvanized audiences worldwide. The crossover appeal of such issue-driven entertainment clearly carries the potential for And We Go Green to similarly capture a broad audience via a variety of formats, although it’s perhaps best suited to the global reach of tech-savvy streamers.

As an offshoot of the world-renowned Formula One race series, the Formula E international circuit shares many of the same characteristics, including aerodynamically styled cars, serpentine racecourses and the intense rivalry of the sport’s top drivers. Familiar players like Renault, Audi and British racing powerhouse McLaren similarly dominate the production of electric race cars, featuring chassis and batteries built to required specifications, with customized engines and electronic power systems designed by individual race teams.

And We Go Green (the title echoes the announcer’s catchphrase that opens every race) joins the tour’s fourth season in 2017 as it is getting underway with the first two races in Hong Kong. Ten further grand prix follow, spread across North Africa, South America, Europe and the U.S. on street circuits rather than racecourses, bringing the action directly to fans in urban centers. Ten teams form a pool of 20 drivers, with the top ten finishers accumulating points toward winning the season's trophy. Defending champion Lucas di Grassi, a Brazilian representing Audi, faces a highly competitive field, with prior winner Sebastien Buemi driving for Renault eager to reclaim the podium and top-ranked drivers like Jean-Eric Vergne (Techeetah), Sam Bird (Virgin Racing) and Nelson Piquet Jr. (Jaguar) close behind.

Formula E founder Alejandro Agag, a former Formula One team owner, contends that “Formula E could have been created by two kinds of people: either environmentalists or racing people.” Agag is clearly the latter, serving as the sport’s chief promoter, collaborating with the race teams and signing on sponsors. When DiCaprio arrives in Morocco to attend the Marrakesh race, Agag acts as host, giving him a tour behind the scenes and explaining how the circuit’s generators running on renewable fuel provide the electrical power to charge race car batteries. DiCaprio approves, emphasizing the advantages of zero-emission vehicles that don’t require recharging from the electrical grid, which only displaces emissions to another source.

Away from the circuit, Agag devotes his energy to accelerating the research and development process for refining Formula E battery performance that’s so essential to race car responsiveness. Improved efficiency will eventually trickle through the auto industry to improve passenger EVs he believes, by providing increased driving range and reducing recharge requirements. For their part, manufacturers recognize that partnering with Formula E can give them access to advanced technology that can be transferred to the consumer market.

In typical sports doc fashion, Stevens and Venville break away from the action to provide profiles on some of the individual drivers, which adds human interest but doesn’t prove as revealing as their comments about the Formula E format. Many are Formula One veterans, but piloting electric cars forces them to develop new skills, like battery power management techniques, to conserve energy. Formula E cars are also much more precise than their liquid fuel counterparts and “the throttle response is instantaneous,” during acceleration observes di Grassi.

The filmmakers capture the contests across most of the major venues with both conventional racetrack footage and more contemporary techniques that include cameras mounted in the cockpits or aboard pursuing cars. Interviews with the drivers are kept appropriately brief, situated within the context of this unique sport and supplemented by historical footage and photos covering their careers, although the individual profiles and archival material could probably stand some trimming for pacing purposes. Overall though, editor Gabriel Rhodes has assembled a compelling package that conveys the visceral thrill of racing and the emotional highs and lows of adrenaline-fueled competition.

While there may be a temptation to view Formula E as a PR stunt designed to distract attention from Formula One’s inherently wasteful ways, such an enticing platform for promoting electric vehicles really has no viable competitors. Although the electric event still has some issues to address with improving sustainability, until there are better alternatives, there’s the thrill of Formula E.

Production companies: Appian Way Productions, RadicalMedia, Bloomfish Productions
Directors: Fisher Stevens, Malcolm Venville
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Fisher Stevens, Christopher St. John, Jennifer Davisson, Zara Duffy
Executive producers: Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Justin Wilkes, Alejandro Agag, Rick Yorn
Director of photography: Damien Drake
Editor: Gabriel Rhodes
Music: Dan Deacon
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Cinetic Media

99 minutes