As a Nissan Leaf owner, I was very curious about the new movie, "Revenge of the Electric Car," by filmmaker Chris Paine. The movie gives the world a sneak peek into the high-pressure world of electric car mass marketing in an era when finding alternatives to oil is at full throttle but the economy is crawling at a snail's pace. I was able to see the film at a recent screening and meet up of Nissan Leaf owners in Santa Monica, California.
In his first film, "Who Killed the Electric Car" released in 2006, Paine made a conspiracy play, intimating that electric cars were squished by big oil. In the end, he laid equal blame at the feet of oil companies, car companies, Government, CARB and consumers.
Paine's follow up documentary, "Revenge of the Electric Car," moves the ongoing saga behind the scenes by gaining access to four moguls of electric motorization for three years. Paine follows Elon Musk of Tesla, Bob Lutz of GM, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Paine's DIY electric Porsche-converting neighbor, Greg "Gadget" Abbott via interviews, meetings and confessions.
The end result takes some of the "conspiracy" out of the theory of the original film and concentrates on the risks associated with being a champion for electric power at a time when battery range is still not at an acceptable level and cost is too high to justify for car companies. The 2008 crash of the economy is a major player in this drama and, as such, "revenge" seems to be an overstatement of where we are at this point.
Narrated by Tim Robbins, other Hollywood stars pipe in on the discussion including Jon Favreau, Danny DeVito, Adrian Grenier and Stephen Colbert. But the most interesting thing about the film is its study of the character traits of four current electric car champions.
The Tesla CEO and former PayPal Silicone Valley entrepreneur, Elon Musk confirms his image as a single-minded egomaniac who is seemingly out of his depth and in horrible financial straights because of his vision to create a car company. He also gives us a little too much information about his marital woes and with his five small children running around his home along with an exasperated new young wife. Even she comments on his personal instability, "Elon is close to a nervous breakdown."
As the affable, cigar chomping former GM vice chairman, Bob Lutz manages to diffuse the first film's depiction of GM and he also succeeds in demonstrating how difficult and expensive it is to bring a product like the Chevrolet Volt to market. As the main front man for GM, he oozes charm and is skilled communicator, but the film follows him right into his own retirement and he comes across old school against Musk and Ghosn. He also exposes a bitter edge in his attitude about "outsiders" like Musk with comments like, "Things keep coming along from people outside the car business and they all fall on their butts."
Carlos Ghosn, chief executive at Nissan, is characterized as a high-powered corporate player who Wall Street Journal car critic Dan Neil claims, "doesn't get up in the morning unless there's money in it." Ghosn himself admits in the film that Nissan's plan to be the first to market with a mass market electric car was a huge risk, but one that was done in secret to catch the competition off guard. As the least humanized character in the film, Ghosn reflects the exacting image of an unemotional, totally focused capitalist with a sharp eye on future markets.
Gary "Gadget" Abbott is the film's small player who builds conversions of high-end sports cars into electrically motorized vehicles. As such, he represents several DIY conversion shops nationwide and the underdogs of electric cars. His story provides the film's biggest drama when he loses his entire Los Angeles shop by fire with no insurance. Based on his attitude and rebuilding after this tragic event, I would say this is a man with an unsinkable spirit and an excellent attitude about life and his mission as a revolutionary in electric car development.
Missing from the movie were some harder facts about electric technology that might actually convince folks on the fence to go electric. Additionally absent is the discussion about charging infrastructure and the providers' as yet unfulfilled plans. But the movie gives those of us who are early adopters an appreciation for the risk car companies are taking to bring EVs to the general market.
As for Nissan, Ghosn says it is banking on the future. "We need to predict the future, prepare for it and if it happens, we'll be ready."
Want to learn more? Follow our long-term test of the Nissan Leaf.