I didn’t know where to begin when I spoke with Chris Paine, writer and director, and Dean Devlin, producer, of WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? on April 21, 2006. The film had raised a host of issues that had somehow been overlooked by the mainstream press, and what it had been that made them want to make a documentary about something that had spurred such little public interest. The conversation touched on their own experiences with the electric car, why the reasons that a particular technology succeeds or fails doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with that technology’s relative merit, and dealing with making docs in a post-Michael Moore world.
The first startling fact revealed in WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is that the concept isn’t new. A century or more ago, the electric car gave gasoline-powered ones a run for their money before falling by the wayside because of a starter issue. The other startling facts come thick and fast as this documentary by Chris Paine tells the tale of nefarious doings perpetrated for reasons that will raise both the hackles and the righteous indignation of its audience. That part starts with the mock solemnity of a funeral for the eponymous electric car, and then unfolds the story of who and what ended its modern life, unmasking villains and victims, the latter, who, for the most part, have yet to realize that a fast one was perpetrated upon them.
Spiced up with celebrity clips, including Tom Hanks who opines that driving an electric car is saving America, the film mostly features smooth-talking corporate spokespersons and passionate advocates for clean energy face off as the film lines up the murder suspects: car companies, consumers, big oil, hydrogen cells, the California Air Resources Board, and battery technology. It then cogently and with a whiff of snarkiness, including showing a sequence under the narration of a corporate shill that directly contradicts what he’s saying, either makes the case or debunks it. As it turns out, few are innocent, but the measures taken by the worst offenders boggle the mind. Forced by a state mandate to come up with a zero emissions vehicle to reduce pollution, the car companies, as the film puts it, could either comply or fight. They chose to do both. Manufacturing a car that they would not sell, only lease, mounting an ad campaign for it that scared consumers, and refusing to manufacture enough to meet the demand that arose despite those efforts.