A Mobile Murder Mystery
The first film I saw, Who Killed the Electric Car?, tracks the demise of a short-lived, much-loved piece of advanced technology. Though writer-director Chris Paine structured his film like a whodunit, it comes across as more of a love story.
Like a proud father, Paine -- whose documentary credits include Faster, Looking Back, and Return to the Philippines -- takes us back to 1990 to show us the electric car's birth. That was the year the California Air Resources Board, in an effort to improve the state's air quality, began requiring automakers to introduce nonpolluting vehicles. GM kicked things off that year with the Impact, whose unfortunate name soon changed to EV1. Eventually Honda, Toyota, and Ford unveiled their own models.
Throughout the first half of the film, a passionate band of devotees gushes about the cars. It's the kind of crew you'd expect in a movie like this -- environmental activists, progressive politicians, and "Americans Like You." But they're also joined by some unlikely allies, including engineers, GM salespeople, and Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks, recruited by the automakers to lend star power to their marketing.
I'm ready for my closeup.
Photo: Josh Knight.
Then the film shifts, becoming like a game of Clue. We witness the slow but inevitable death of the electric car, enabled by the rollback of the California mandate. Then we meet the lineup of suspects -- automakers, oil companies, the Air Resources Board, even the American consumer -- each of whom had their reasons for committing, or abetting, the murder. Although it's obvious from the outset where Paine's sympathies lie, he gives time to both sides, letting the evidence speak for itself. And it is damning: most of the suspects are guilty.
In the end, Electric Car seemed most successful at allowing viewers to fall in love with its cute, yet doomed, main character. By the time the last models were on their way to be demolished, some people around me were quietly wiping away tears. As the film ended, the audience responded with an emotional and enthusiastic standing ovation.
Though Sundance was the film's world premiere, it will be distributed by Sony Classics, and producers Richard Titus, Tavin Marin Titus, and Dean Devlin hope it will reach wider audiences by summer.
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