Tribeca: The ‘Electric Car’ Takes Its Revenge

Suddenly big automakers to small ones, from Detroit to Silicon Valley, are adopting the gospel of no-emission vehicles for more than just high-end tree huggers (yeah that’s us!)

‘The Revenge of the Electric Car,’ which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday night, is a welcome revisiting of the American auto industry’s decision to abandon electric cars.

Guess what: Now they love them again!

Volt, the Leaf, the Tesla experiment – big automakers to small ones, from Detroit to Silicon Valley are now adopting the gospel of no-emission vehicles with an eye to serving the mass market as well as the high-end treehuggers (yeah that’s us!)

“The public expects it of us,” explains Bob Lutz, the legendary chief of GM, a stunning change of faith from one of the key purveyors of Detroit gas-guzzler dogma. The unctuous Lutz was instrumental in the company’s decision just a handful of years ago to haul whatever electric EV1 cars were left among the diehard owners and crush them in the Arizona desert.

That was the story of Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car” of 2006. His new documentary is a sequel to that painful story, and takes us deep inside the evolving thinking of American carmakers, including through the financial crisis that required their bail-out by the U.S. government.

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Paine has the advantage of having followed this issue out ahead of everybody else. That status made him a pariah on the first film, but served as a kind of a gold entry card on this one.

He is inside the meeting at GM where Lutz acknowledges to his team that taking the corporate jets on a trip to DC to ask for Congressional money was tone-deaf, and perhaps a little “humility” was in order.

Paine follows around the shark-like Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan-Renault, as he prepares a stealth attack on competitors with the all-electric Leaf.

He gets the full inside scoop on the trials of Elon Musk at Tesla, and even captures incredible footage of Musk perusing the Leaf with Bob Lutz at his side, and their spontaneous, competitive banter.

Paine also introduces us to a couple who are buiding their own electric vehicles in their garage.

The film chronicles a torturous but most welcome change in the thinking of American carmakers, finally forced to seek innovation as they face stunning existential choices. We are all living the consequences of our addiction to the gas guzzlers they made, and we loved, for far too long. And with gas prices soaring again, the message is a particular timely one.

Dan Neil, the Wall Street Journal’s car writer, serves as the Greek chorus to this narrative, offering wry and true insights to each of the characters. I, for one, was thrilled to learn from the mouth of Lutz himself that zero emission cars are not just an alternative to our current gassy vehicles, but an inevitability.

That’s exciting. And the sooner the better.

“Revenge” doesn’t appear to have a distributor at the moment. Let’s hope they get one soon, it’s worthy of a wide audience.