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Who Killed the Electric Car?

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Director:Chris Paine
Release Date:2006

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 8/23/2006

This was supposed to be the summer that An Inconvenient Truth shocked the nation into tackling global warming, and maybe that's how the history books will record it. But if there was any justice, every lip-service liberal who went to see that documentary and then rolled home in an SUV would have to sit through the far more pointed and effective Who Killed the Electric Car? Sure, Truth was packed with facts about the decline of our environment, but Electric Car gets down to the brass tacks and shows in great detail the pernicious and intentional mechanisms driving one specific facet of that decline--namely, how corporations and our government collaborated to bury one of the more forward-thinking ideas of our time.

Electric Car might not grab you from the get-go. It's marred by the bland music and uninspired production values that run throughout most docs in this age of Final Cut Pro and DV cams; Martin Sheen's narration operates with a vocal quality that's just, well, goofy; and pro-electric testimonials from the likes of Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, and Phyllis Diller aren't going to inspire much confidence as far as intellectual rigor goes. Further, it's obvious from the outset that this isn't a documentary striving for balance or objectivity, but rather a movie made by an electric-car advocate that proudly--and bluntly--wears its bias on its sleeve.

But director Chris Paine's movie rises above these limitations and worries. A narrative that starts out sounding like a plausible conspiracy theory ends up as an ironclad conviction of a society that favors corporate values over human ones. Much as automobile and tire concerns conspired to dismantle the trolley system in America's cities, Paine argues, every presidential administration post-Carter has knelt down before oil and automobile lobbyists as they fought to sabotage the electric car. And when a California state mandate coerced car companies into manufacturing electric cars, things got really weird, with those same companies simultaneously building electric cars and fighting tooth and nail against their existence.

Paine spends most of his time with electric-car advocates--owners, salespeople, technicians, inventors, and politicians--but that doesn't stop his movie from showing how lawmakers, consumers, and, yes, even Al Gore sat down and smiled while big automobile companies knowingly sacrificed an existing environmentally friendly vehicle for less-efficient hybrids and the perhaps fanciful promise of hydrogen cars years--or even decades--further along the pipeline. This documentary bests Gore's in both information and impact--and, perhaps most importantly, leaves you with a more realistic sense of what can be done than did the hollowly optimistic final notes of Inconvenient Truth.

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