Who Killed the Electric Car?

Movie Information

Genre: Documentary
Director: Chris Paine
Starring: Martin Sheen, Chelsea Sexton, Peter Horton, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks
Rated: PG

The only real problem with Who Killed the Electric Car? is the predictable one of “preaching to the choir.” Let’s face it, the primary audience for this film — for this type of film — is made up of people already sold on its basic premise. Does anyone really think the core viewership will drive to the theater in a Hummer and leave slinking away in shame over their devotion to conspicuous consumption (and apparent desire to be ready to invade a Third World country at a moment’s notice)? Not likely. This is not a criticism of the film or of its actual audience. It’s merely a statement of fact — folks who listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News aren’t lining up for this; and thinking that they might be, is on a par with watching The Long Walk Home (1990), going home and playing a Billie Holiday record and feeling you’ve struck a blow for civil rights (playing the record is a nice thought, but not much more).

That’s too bad because Chris Paine has painted a convincing picture of corporate greed — working hand in hand with the government — effectively not just killing off the electric car as a viable alternative to the gasoline-powered version, but of trying to erase the fact that the thing ever existed in the first place. It’s this last point that makes Who Killed the Electric Car? unusually persuasive. After all, there’s no good answer why General Motors should have gone to the lengths they did to wipe every trace of their EV 1 electric car unless they had something to hide.

Consider the fact that people who leased the car (it wasn’t available for sale) were neither allowed to renew their leases, nor were they given the option of buying the car outright. When the lease was up, that was it. The car was summarily taken from the lessee. Then, despite claims that this wouldn’t happen, the cars were summarily compacted and shredded. No issue is really made of it, but the one car that was spared — for inclusion in a car museum — is noted to have had its internal workings removed as part of the deal that allowed it to be included in the collection. This is unprecedented in the history of automobiles, so the question that arises is why?

Certainly, it’s not because the car was inferior or a failure. We have both the testimony of numerous lessees — including some famous names — that the cars were anything but, and the silent fact that no car manufacturer has ever gone to such lengths (or any lengths at all) to bury their failures. The natural assumption then is that the car was in fact too good — that it threatened the dominance of the internal combustion engine, the parts-supply side of automobile commerce and, of course, the oil industry.

This is what Paine’s film sets out to prove — and it goes about it in an entertaining and clever manner. Does it prove this? It will be said — it has been said — that it doesn’t really prove it. But it does arrive at a point where nothing else — especially in light of the fact that General Motors offers no convincing alternative explanation — makes sense. Will it convince you? That probably depends a lot on your preconceived notions, but it certainly offers an intriguing portrait of corporate and political America that you won’t dismiss lightly. Rated PG for brief mild language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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