If Richard Nixon were president today and embroiled in the same scandal that forced him to resign from office in 1974, he probably wouldn't be caught. Instead of investigative journalists doggedly pursuing the truth about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, newspapers would simply recycle a press release from the White House and sell the American public whatever line of bullshit the Nixon administration wanted sold. The truth about Nixon and Watergate wouldn't come out until years later, when some documentary filmmaker like Michael Moore uncovered what really happened, resulting in liberals whining in frustration about what they can do, and neo-cons screaming that it's all lefty conspiracy paranoia.
Over the past 10 years, documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and After Innocence have begun to replace mainstream journalism as a means of digging at the truth surrounding hot-button topics. The latest film to join the ranks of cinematic truth-seekers is director Chris Paine's Who Killed the Electric Car?
In much the same way that Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room unfolded like a crime caper being solved, Electric Car unfolds like a murder mystery, starting with a funeral for, of all things, an electric car. As Paine's film gets under way, he quickly recounts the history of the electric car, which has been around in one form or another for a hundred years. But the murder victim in the film is not some prototype vehicle tested in the 1970s. The victim in question is the EV1 from General Motors, an electric car that was incredibly popular in California in the mid-1990s, gathering a loyal base of drivers that included celebrities like Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Peter Horton and even Paine himself. And there is the film's first real revelation: An electric car that worked was on the market and in demand. But within a few short years, GM and the makers of other electric cars began pulling them off the road and having them destroyed, claiming that they weren't viable and there was no real demand.
"When they took the cars away, and said they failed because nobody wanted them, and that it wasn't a proven technology, we felt like the story wasn't being told," Paine said during a trip to Portland last week, explaining his motivation to make the film.
Working with a group of electric-car activists, Paine began documenting what really happened with the car. To say the emission-free vehicles were "murdered" may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. With each new clue Paine uncovers and each bit of evidence he presents, the documentary becomes more frustrating. The picture that starts to come into view is a complex web of deception and greed involving oil companies, car manufacturers and the government (like we needed another reason to hate the Bush administration).
Who Killed the Electric Car? joins the ranks of ire-raising documentaries that leave you with a sense of hopelessness. Unlike, say, the work of Michael Moore, Paine's film, as left-leaning as it may be, is less guilty of preaching to the liberal choir. The issue of zero-emission cars versus fossil-fuel-burning cars, like global warming, is one that has the power to reach across party lines. The film goes a long way to get at the truth of the matter, especially considering the dogged attempts of oil and auto companies to sabotage electric cars. But for all the questions the film answers in 92 minutes, the solution to the problems it raises must be found outside movie theaters.
Opens Friday, July 21. Fox Tower.