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Chris Paine Investigates “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

As seen at this years Woods Hole Film Festival. Movie review by Patricia Freeman.

As seen at this years Woods Hole Film Festival. Movie review by Patricia Freeman.

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Only in Hollywood would you have a full-fledged funeral for a car. Yet this is the spirit behind Chris Paine’s witty and poignant documentary that tells of the birth and death of California’s great, but brief experiment with the modern electric car or the EV-1. Part historical overview and Part murder mystery, Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is an excellent film. What begins as pure Hollywood camp, complete with archival footage glorifying old cars and interviews with Phyllis Diller, quickly turns into a hard-hitting account of how electric cars were doomed from the start and hints at the grave implications this has for our future as gas prices near the $4 mark.

The first half of Paine’s film does an excellent job grabbing the audience due to the fast paced and entertaining historical overview that he provides, taking the viewer up to the final days of the electric car. Sharp editing by Michael Kovalenko and Chris A. Peterson mix numerous interviews with EV-1 car inventors, promoters and enthusiasts, most notably Mel Gibson, Alexandra Paul, and Peter Horton, to demonstrate the impact that the electric car had on California once the legislature forced the issue in 1995 that 10 percent of all new cars sold in the state were emissions-free. With GM leasing the car to consumer in 1996 and numerous celebrity endorsements, like Tom Hanks raving about his dream car to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, the electric car seemed well on its way. Yet quickly it becomes apparent that this car would have a tragic end due to the tremendous forces working against it, and by 2004 carmakers literally take back the vehicles, which for some seemed as emotional as a child being taken from its mother. The second half of the film treats the car’s demise as a homicide and in Agatha Christi- style offers up numerous suspects for the audience, who Paine ingeniously allows to play Hercule Poirot, to consider.

While Paine is smart to rely on big names, like authoritative narrator Martin Sheen, to grab the audience, the film’s true resonance comes from the little guys who are given a chance to tell how this car and their fight with Goliath to save the car changed their life. The standout is the pretty and passionate Chelsea Sexton, a former EV-1 salesperson, who heightens the drama better than any Hollywood actor can. Her struggles to promote the car and keep it one the road are remarkable. The audience follows her journey from her youth as a car salesperson to her current days as mother and activist, who fights to give alternative fuels a chance in our oil-obsessed society. Her enthusiasm and optimism remind us that while Corporate America and our Government are forces to be reckoned with so too is the individual with a voice in our society.

By the end of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” it becomes apparent that given the rise in technology and the growing legacy of EV-1 lovers who lost their first fight with Corporate America, the fate of the electric car is not entirely sealed. Perhaps the American Consumer, who Paine rightly adds to his list of suspects, will have a change of heart when the levels of supply and demand force us into a crises mode, and demand that the electric car be brought back to the road.