“Revenge of the Electric Car”… the Kings (a review)

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If Chris Paine’s earlier movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car” (WKtEC), was about people being deprived of their vehicles and used as pawns in a struggle between government regulations and established business, then his latest film, “Revenge of the Electric Car,” is about the Kings.

The Journey
For the trip to the theater, I used an electric vehicle,.. though many don’t consider how the subways are powered. The train was stopped two stations short of my destination for a passenger with a seizure and I decided to walk. Many can be subject to what affects one train, but is this so different than a traffic accident on a highway? The air was crisp and most New Yorkers are under-dressed for spending much time outside. Along the way, newspapers proclaimed in headlines the demise of the man who was all but King in Libya, complete with a photo of a fellow next to him sporting a New York Yankees cap on his head.

The Audience
This is the third screening of this movie in NYC. It was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and, on July 12, at the Central Park Naumberg Bandshell, through the mayor’s office and Nissan. Our viewing of the movie was graced by the presence of Tim Robbins, who narrated the film, Marc Schiller, and Ray Wert, who provided some commentary in the film. They provided an introduction and a Q & A after the film.

With a show of hands, it was revealed that most had seen the earlier film and all but one didn’t own an EV. One couple said they had traveled from Maryland (more than 4 hours driving one way) just to see this film. The Tesla Roadster parked out front represented our EV owner, as 4 different cars were to represent the 4 Kings followed in this film.

We were told that this is a very different film than WKtEC. It was not to be viewed as a sequel. Perhaps that makes this a bit of a rogue review, but a comparison seems inevitable and many appeared to be attending with the expectation of a similar perspective or coverage.

Tim Robbins commented that this was a film about ingenuity and would probably not be embraced by the “right-wing,” and we are reminded that, in our polarized society, too often we find ourselves “preaching to the choir.” This turned out to be an even more interesting observation after the movie. He also suggested, to general approval, that the NYC subways do not share the silent operation of other systems and some innovation there may not go amiss. There was a certain anticipation in the air. One next to me asked if I was also going to take notes during the movie. This was a NYC audience.

WARNING, What follows contains SPOILERS.


The Kings
Like a game of cards, each of the four kings are represented by a suit — in this case, their cars: A GM Volt, A Nissan Leaf, a Tesla Roadster, and a converted speedster replica. However, this is not a movie about the cars but the people trying to create them: GM executive Bob Lutz; Mr Detroit, Carlos Ghosn, CEO & President, Nissan; the Warrior, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors; the Rocket Man and Greg “Gadget” Abbott, CEO of Left Coast Electric, who is appropriately nicknamed the Outsider, as he is in the electric vehicle conversion business. The court includes a cast of journalists who comment on the developments. Along with dates and subheadings, there was a full list of items to remember.

The film is a personal history, with the kings representing the industry. To those closely watching current EVents it may seem a bit dated. The 2008 economic collapse comes in the middle of shooting, and mounting tension causes one of the kings to swear. It was left in, earning the film its PG13 rating, though you’ll have to listen carefully to hear it.

MAZDA MIATA EV (represents a conversion vehicle, but not in the movie)

Environmentalism is mentioned in the movie, as well as climate change. Bob Lutz and Carlos Ghosn both comment that they don’t care. What matters to them is that people care, and if they can sell vehicles as a result, this is a clear direction. Carlos Ghosn also doesn’t care about the range of his EV, as his all-consuming goal is a mass-produced car for most people, not all.


The Business Case
In 2003, there was no “business case” for electric vehicles. No numbers are offered. By 2006, we hear Bob Lutz comment on his hate mail after WKtEC. This seems to have shaken his usual charismatic self-confidence. He goes to GM suggesting the EV is a way to proceed. They demure. Tesla proves it can be done. They agree to a hybrid. The business case for an EV, therefore, seems based upon a working model and wounded pride.

How Much Money
Nissan is making a 6-billion-dollar investment. GM spent a billion on building a car. It cost Tesla more than 100 million to make a car that the original business plan said would take only 35 million, and our conversion genius does an EV for $50,000 for the prototype, with eventual hopes of an $8,500 conversion. It is interesting that the numbers, for the manufacturers, are inversely proportional to the final expected cost of the vehicles. This relationship also holds true when we consider that most EVs are initially more costly than alternatives, but are cheaper to operate… until we get to the conversions, some 2-wheel and smaller electric vehicles.

Taking it Away
I found Ray Wert outside after the show. He didn’t have a coat. “In 1920 there were 300 auto manufacturers in the US. Now we have two and a half,” he said. Those who provide our vehicles are like Kings who can dictate our choices with what they choose to give. But sometimes our voice can also be heard.

A Yankees baseball joins the headlines of a king’s demise, reminding us that as this movie is being released, the OWS protest against the 1% holding most of the wealth in this country continues. Pride can be broken, but direction is also required.

The kings featured here show some uncommon qualities. Bob Lutz tells us he wants to take risks in interviews because they also represent opportunities. The risks they take are not personal but spread over large corporations and are often supported by disposable income. Spending wisely is favored over conservation. Focus is also significant. What they don’t care about is as interesting as their directed passions. Overall, the right wing would probably be very happy with the way the film was conducted. It would appreciate the worldview of these captains of industry. At least two of them would be at home in any “right-wing” gathering.

The film lacks the common touch of WKtEC and may also represent broken promises, as the filmmaker at one point steps from behind the camera to identify his personal ownership of one of the cars or, as Bob Lutz says, he is “Never one to turn down a bribe” .. when offered a cigar. Some will come to this film looking for a representation of a movement. They may be disappointed. It is supposed to be a positive film. The questions afterward, like the website, are mostly about the EV industry and not the film or the people involved. It is a measure of EV interest that just the mention of electric cars, without a focus on them (as in WKtEC), is enough to spark interest.

It may be a good archival piece that is not presently in tune with our rapidly changing times. Important to see, but limited to continuing the discussion started in the previous film.

Photo Credits: All photos by author from Plug in Day or the NYC Auto Show (reserved)
For additional photos, see Revenge of the Electric Car on Flickr

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