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OLIVER STONE MEETS LENI RIEFENSTAHL
Imagine that Oliver Stone and Leni Riefenstahl had a love child and that the kid grew up to become a filmmaker like his parents. That would be Chris Paine, director and co-writer (with P.G. Morgan) of “Revenge of the Electric Car,” which goes into limited release in New York and Los Angeles beginning October 21. Make no mistake. “Revenge” is a documentary, not Christine with a battery pack. It’s the sequel to “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” Paine’s 2006 opus which centered on the recalls of Honda’s EV and General Motors’ EV-1, both pure plug-in electric automobiles. Both are propaganda films, but “Revenge” marks a change of heart for Paine. It also marks a change of thinking for the automobile industry. In “Who Killed?” there are hints of conspiracy between automakers and big oil to stifle electric car development (think of Oliver Stone’s “JFK”). “Revenge,” shot only five years after “Who Killed?,” is more a celebration of progress by the big automakers. In the prequel, Paine got little cooperation from the automobile industry. In the sequel, his crew followed everyone involved in electric cars from Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn to Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk, an internet billionaire who may be on his way to becoming the Henry Kaiser of the 21st Century.
Pic’s real star, however, is the redoubtable Bob Lutz, the septuagenarian former key executive of General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and BMW. Lutz is unusual among current lights of the car business. He’s a car guy, not an accountant. His extensive collection of automobiles, including a 1955 Chrysler 300, has been widely reviewed in car enthusiast magazines. He is also a former US Marine Corps fighter pilot and counts fighter planes among his toys. Lutz’s change of thinking regarding the electric automobile puts him at the leading edge of the electric car movement among major automakers. In a telephone interview he predicted that in a decade, at the current rate of advancement of battery technology, a pure plug-in electric car practical for family use which can go up to 300 miles on a three-hour charge, will be on the market.
That’s pretty heady stuff for the electric car crowd. As Lutz pointed out, many of the claimed ranges for pure electric cars depend on ideal conditions, and in the real world, many such ranges including a claimed 130 mile range for one electric crossover vehicle, may be closer to half the manufacturer’s claim. It was progress in technology that made Lutz the booster of Chevrolet’s Volt, a hybrid gasoline-electric car that can also be plugged into the electrical grid for a charge. The gasoline engine charges the batteries when it is not practical to wait for a plug-in charge. Much of Paine’s footage of Lutz surrounds his 2010 introduction of the Volt. What Paine misses is a fundamental tenet of automobile marketing. Appearance sells cars. According to Lutz, a car has to be attractive to look at in order to be sold. “Nowadays, all cars will go 100,000 miles without a serious breakdown,” he said. “They all have fuel mileage mandated by the government, and they’re all built to a government mandated safety standard.” It’s the looks that set one car apart from another. Lutz, who shepherded the Volt project through General Motors, made sure that his bridge between the gasoline engine and the pure electric car would look stylish enough to appeal to a mass market. A decade ago, Lutz was not a proponent of the electric car. It wasn’t ready for prime time. Paine paints him as a visionary. Your critic would say he is a realist.
Paine can be forgiven for some suspect editing, such as a cut of former GM CEO Rick Wagoner which implies that Wagoner believes that recalling the EV-1 from the market was the biggest mistake his team at GM made. “Revenge” marks progress both for Paine and the automobile industry, but it is not Paine’s mea culpa for “Who Killed?” Lutz confirmed that the EV-1 was a rolling test bed for technology in the real world. The prototypical GM electric car was leased with the caveat that it could be recalled at any time. GM lost a billion dollars on the experiment, Lutz said. That the EV-1 was beloved by many celebrity drivers, such as Danny DeVito and Ed Begley Jr., folks who can attract media attention to a pet peeve, created a PR black eye for GM when it retrieved its EV-1 from the field test. With the EV-1 GM was treading uncharted ground. America is a litigious society. GM had no idea what could go wrong with a ten-year-old EV-1 and what its product liability might be. It also had to get the cars back to analyze wear and tear. All of the foregoing was published in the automotive press at the time, but going there might have been too much for Paine to swallow.
“Revenge” is an entertaining, PG-13 rated, 90 minutes. In attempting to offer a little drama, Paine spends a lot of footage on tsuris at Tesla Motors, including a few family scenes with Elon Musk’s kids and trophy wife (their stepmom) as well as the ups and downs of some build-to-order electric car jobbers, one of whom converts vintage Porsche 356s to run on batteries. (Forget about trunk space. You and your significant other will not use one for a weekend getaway.) The compilation of archival footage and new material is ably narrated by Tim Robbins, who stands out as one of the most compelling documentary voices in Hollywood. Tech aspects are up to par. And to Paine’s credit, pic runs less than half the length of his spiritual father’s “JFK.”
–30–The Revenge of the Electric Car on Netflix