A few years ago, filmmaker Chris Paine was persona non grata at General Motors.
Paine had skewered GM for, as his earlier film's title put it, killing the electric car. But on Nov. 11, Paine was the honored guest at a GM-sponsored showing of his new film, Revenge of the Electric Car, at a suburban Detroit theater.
GM granted Paine broad access to the development of the Chevrolet Volt for his new documentary. Both GM and then-product chief Bob Lutz come off looking pretty good.
But for my money, the star of the film is Tesla CEO Elon Musk -- although probably not for the reasons that Musk anticipated when he, too, opened his doors to Paine.
The film tracks four vehicle electrification efforts: The Volt, Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf, and retrofitter Greg "Gadget" Abbott.
Lutz pushes the Volt through GM with his trademark elan, wit and steely determination. Nissan's Carlos Ghosn is characteristically decisive, marching briskly through product reviews and internal meetings. Abbott's struggles are poignant, and a reminder of the grass-roots fervor and innovation sparking electric cars.
But the segments with Musk are riveting. Musk puts his Silicon Valley fortune into building Tesla -- and damn near loses it. Paine unsparingly captures the time when Tesla was struggling with quality problems, angering customers by missing delivery dates and bleeding cash.
For all of Musk's rock-star image -- the space exploration company, the movie-actress girlfriend -- you feel for him as he talks about being on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Relief arrives with an investment from Daimler, a federal loan and a successful initial stock offering. Tesla lives to fight another day.
But if you want to see someone realizing just how hard it is to build a working, reliable car -- and how the auto business swallows a sizable personal fortune like a handful of salted peanuts -- catch this film. And keep your eyes on Musk.