In the post-Michael Moore indie world, a disconcerting number of crusading lefty documentarians have fallen under the delusion that muckraking documentaries must entertain while they educate. A recent example is Who Killed The Electric Car?, a granola documentary that begins with a mock funeral for the electric car and adopts the form of a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery. Writer-director Chris Paine offers many things: a stinging critique of the car industry's short-sightedness and lust for profits, a plea for greater public awareness of alternative energies, and an elegy for a sweet little electro-car called the EV1. But he doesn't offer gut-busting comedy, and his attempts to sweeten his message with pop-culture playfulness feels a little strained.
Above all, the film is an extended love letter to the EV1, a sleek GM electric marvel that, by Paine's reckoning, marks the single greatest innovation in human technology since the wheel. Instead of acolytes, the EV1 apparently inspired cultists who refused to accept the car's passing even after GM demanded its return. Judging from the film's amped-up subjects, it appears that the EV1 was leased (rather than sold) exclusively either to charismatic superstars (and Peter Horton), or radiant young women who discuss their beloved lost automobiles with evangelical zeal.
EV1 and its backers function as the film's plucky underdog heroes, so of course there are also snarling villains. Much of the blame for the failure of the electric car falls on the conservative, change-averse car companies that sabotaged the chances of their own electric cars rather than risk losing money until the market fully embraced alternative energies. In spite of its bid to escape the political-documentary ghetto, Who Killed The Electric Car? will probably still end up preaching largely to the converted, but it's hard to deny the passion and commitment of any film that can generate real pathos out of footage of cars being destroyed.