CULTURE:

The men who struggled to bring you the electric car hit the screen

Electric cars have arrived to reduce our emissions and gasoline bills, but they're not exactly off to the races. Automakers are just releasing their first models this year, in small batches that have mostly been pre-ordered.

The buyers, in large part, are wealthier and environmentally motivated -- hardly the mainstream motorists the automakers dream of reaching. Even if they sell every car they build this year, it'll be several years before they've maxed out their production lines and begin marketing the car to more regular Joes.

The book about all this has yet to be written, but we do have a movie: "Revenge of the Electric Car," released last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Director Chris Paine's debut, 2006's "Who Killed the Electric Car?," accused oil companies, auto companies and myopic leaders of squashing the car's first audition in the late 1990s. Now, Paine is back to chronicle how four men who attended the rebirth of the electric car have taken an honest crack at trying to get them on the road.

Two are hawk-eyed auto executives, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and General Motors' former vice chairman, Bob Lutz, trying to develop electric cars worth putting their company logos on. One is an in-over-his-head startup manager, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. And one is a self-made, long-suffering inventor, the kind who see their dreams go up in smoke, but plod on: Greg "Gadget" Abbott.

Paine is arguing that these four men braved the economic recession and personal misfortune to make the electric car possible. But by the film's midpoint, he has flitted so distractingly between the four stories, like an insomniac flipping between channels, that it makes for a bumpy ride. These men are neither working together nor at cross-purposes. They are all really just trying to hang on.

Betting with lots of chips

There's plenty of entertainment in that. Lutz cuts a charming role as the cigar-chomping grandpa of the film. The man who once derided global warming as a "total crock of shit" becomes so fixated on his legacy that he propels the Chevy Volt to the top of GM's to-do list.

Ghosn icily lays off scores of Nissan employees, then recasts the company around his vision; he's a cagey gambler who doesn't bat an eyelash at betting with the chips of Fortune 500 companies. Abbott discovers that all of the cars he's been converting to electrics have been torched by arsonists. As he combs through ashen remains of his factory, he quietly resolves to rebuild his dream one car at a time.

What Paine never quite grasps is that these men's peculiarities, not the electric car, are his film's real engine. In the end, this is a story about big personalities who are used to winning, and whether their considerable wills will hold up against a massive challenge: making money on these cars. Not even a lot of money; any money.

Musk comes across as the most embattled and entertaining figure. Early on, he receives his company's very first production car, a black, falcon-sleek Roadster (it sells for about $100,000 today). Musk shrugs like a high-school football jock: "It feels like victory." Soon, he's a black blur streaking down a surface street, to the cheers of his employees.

Then Musk discovers Paine's main thesis: Electric cars make great toys, but selling them is actually kind of hard. Musk is irate when he sees a full warehouse of Roadsters that haven't been sold -- millions of dollars of inventory taking revenge on his wallet, not being driven on California streets.

The popcorn factor

It dawns on him that his pet venture has about half a year to make money, or it's toast. He spends his personal fortune thin to save the company, sometimes just to keep it from missing its payroll.

Multiplying the popcorn factor, though, is Musk's personal life. He's going through a messy divorce but has gotten engaged to a twenty-something British actress to tide himself over. She's also helpful for taking care of his five sons, who turn up intermittently to be childish and have absolutely no sense of whether their father is normal. Silently, with minimal greenhouse gases, the electric car is avenging itself on children.

Give Musk credit: For all his stresses, he never cracks on camera. In one interview, he muses that he won't know when his mental breakdown has begun, because at that point, he'll be insane. Musk's very atoms must be struggling to rend themselves, yet he carries on.

By the end of the film, Tesla has secured a massive Department of Energy loan for Musk's final kick at the can: an electric sedan with a more mainstream price. Auto writers scoff. They say Musk doesn't have the money to help it gain liftoff.

So does the electric car really get its revenge? Paine can't say. Indeed, he can't know: The only ones who might, and who can make a difference for the climate, are the American buyers whose moods swerve with the big numbers on gas station signs.

They made a brief, indifferent appearance in "Who Killed the Electric Car?," and they're virtually absent this time around. If Paine makes "Who Bought the Electric Car?," we'll learn whether this story had an ending -- or whether it had a point at all.