Ever wonder why GM's sales are falling? In the face of rising gas prices, Toyota's hit Prius hybrid and a $1.1 billion loss posted last quarter, GM has announced a whole new line of large pickups and SUVs for next season. In fact, as Honda searches for a spot to build their next American plant, GM talks about moving its operations to Mexico. But that's all recent news and not what Who Killed the Electric Car? is about.
The film tells the story of how General Motors brought a great, little electric car, the EV1, to market and then turned on its own creation, crushing it out of existence. GM is portrayed as opaque, all-powerful and as unknowable as the capricious, angry God of the Old Testament. GM moves in mysterious ways and it is apparently not ours to understand why.
It should be a compelling story. GM put a lot of money into the development and marketing of the EV1, leasing several to celebrities and tastemakers who fell in love with the car. In fact, the film is populated with a group of characters who became activists when their vehicles were confiscated by the automaker and consigned to the scrap heap. But the filmmakers are so smug, they make their own characters look like liberal wackos and the presentation of actual newsreel footage looks faked in their hands. It makes one really appreciate what an amazing job Al Gore did with An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore took the time and invested the energy necessary to build an argument, fact by incontrovertible fact. When he didn't know the answer to something, he plainly just asked the question. At the core of An Inconvenient Truth is a deep melancholy about the state of the union and the state of the planet, coming from a very personal place and leading to a very universal truth. What makes the film so effective is the way it shies from sensationalism and in the end offers alternatives and a great deal of hope. It's very difficult to refute the overall claims made in An Inconvenient Truth and few, from either the left or the right, have.
Who Killed the Electric Car? has a lot going for it. At its core is a seriously fascinating mystery. Why did General Motors turn against and destroy its own innovation? Where would that company be now if it had continued the EV1 program and followed the technology wherever it was leading? The film is populated with a highly motivated cast of characters, including people who worked for GM developing and marketing the car and all those crazy Hollywood liberals who drove and loved it. Plus, the documentary introduces Stanford and Iris Ovshinsky, a husband and wife team that invented better fuel cells for electric and hybrid cars. The work these two are doing with alternate forms of energy looks fascinating and the couple is as intelligent and amusing as they are innovative. There are even a pair of great villains present in Alan Lloyd, the former director of the California Air Resources Board and Edward R. Murphy, a representative from the American Petroleum Institute. Those two say the darndest things...
Structurally, Who Killed the Electric Car? is as schizophrenic as GM. The film pretends to hand out indictments to suspects accused of murdering the EV1 and in the end doles out guilt and innocence. However, even the most rudimentary courtroom drama honors the adversarial process enough to present compelling arguments for and against each defendant. The device is a nod to Reality TV, complete with cheesy graphics and cheap sound effects.
Unfortunately, we never find out why General Motors abandoned the EV1, and the real "murderer" remains at large, though there is a lot of conjecture suggesting that a coalition of big oil, big auto and the White House did the deed. (Hmmm. You don't say?) There was a genuinely compelling story to be told here, too bad the filmmakers lost their way and couldn't drive it home.
Who Killed the Electric Car? opens June 30, 2006.