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Revenge of the Electric Car

‘Electric Car’ follow-up lacks strong jolt of original

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / November 4, 2011

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When last we saw the electric car in filmmaker Chris Paine’s viewfinder, it was lying crushed and abandoned in an Arizona junkyard, a good idea deemed unfeasible by its maker, General Motors, to the outrage of everyone who’d actually driven one. Paine’s 2006 broadside, “Who Killed the Electric Car?,’’ was the best kind of partisan documentary: informative, clear-eyed, and mad as hell. The follow-up, “Revenge of the Electric Car,’’ arrives today and it’s a lesser animal, more hopeful but also more complex and lacking the focused urgency of the original.

Instead of an issue, Paine trains his camera on people: the handful of executives and tinkerers, inside the automotive industry and on its fringes, who are struggling to make electric cars a reality. In the process, “Revenge’’ becomes a business story, one with many threads and an ending yet to be written. Following GM’s aborted EV1 program in the early 2000s - the company leased the electric runabouts to consumers, then broke off the deal and took them back - a motley collection of individuals have continued to carry the ball upfield.

Some of them are the expected visionaries, young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who took the gajillions he made from selling PayPal and started Tesla Motors, the first auto company solely dedicated to electric car production. But what are we to make of Bob Lutz, a General Motors vice chairman, old-guard auto industry guy, and global-warming skeptic who nonetheless believes electric cars are inevitable and thus chooses to spearhead the development of the Chevy Volt? Or Carlos Ghosn, the Machiavellian CEO of Nissan, who pushes ahead with the zero-emissions Leaf, the first affordable mass-produced e-car?

Paine gets a startling amount of face time with these big boys, in public, in private, and in closed-door meetings; one wonders, in particular, how many of his cards Ghosn is willing to show the camera. But the point is made that these businessmen aren’t (just) doing it for the green publicity but because they recognize that electric cars are the future and it’s best to get there first. Lutz is especially good company as a Detroit dinosaur feeling his oats late in the day.

Paine also spends a lot of time with Greg “Reverend Gadget’’ Abbott, an ordained minister and inveterate gearhead who runs Left Coast Electric, a shop specializing in e-car conversions. He represents the do-it-yourself ethic of the classic American inventors, but the movie never convincingly knits his story in with the others.

The drama of “Revenge of the Electric Car’’ is mostly external: The various players are pursing their strategies until the economy goes south in 2008, taking both idealism and ready cash with it. Musk’s Tesla flounders for lack of funding; arson destroys Rev. Gadget’s workshop; Bob Lutz gets edged toward retirement. Paine keeps the suspense up as best he can, but the strain shows and parts of “Revenge’’ play like forced drama.

The film’s boosterism also gets in the way of a nuanced presentation of the facts. Don’t electric cars just offload use of fossil fuels to the grid? Yes, but it’s not that simple; the amount of power needed is much smaller than with combustion engines, and e-cars don’t add pollution on the other end. How big a problem is the limited range of the current models (around 100 miles per charge), and how soon is that likely to change? It’d be nice if Paine argued his case a little more clearly and relied less on narrator Tim Robbins’s bromides.

On the other hand, watching former EV1 owner Danny DeVito slide into a new Volt with a squawk of delight is worth the price of admission. What’s missing - and what makes Part 3 of this saga worth waiting for - is the scene where you and I get one, too.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR Directed by: Chris Paine

Written by: Paine and P.G. Morgan

Starring: Bob Lutz, Elon Musk, Carlos Ghosn, Dan Neil, Danny DeVito; narrated by Tim Robbins

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (brief strong language)

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