A documentary look at the American oil habit and how to break it
In Fuel, his 2008 documentary, Joshua Tickell took a first-person stance for renewable energy. Six years later, co-directing with his wife Rebecca Harrell Tickell, he removes himself from the onscreen equation for Pump. Gathering expert testimony and a bright mix of archival material, their film champions gas station alternatives that go way beyond premium and regular. The historical overview they provide is insightful and lucid, yet their polished production intermittently lapses into dry chronology while they bury the lead. The headline is that most cars on today’s roads could easily run on non-petroleum fuels that are cheaper, cleaner and more plentiful than gasoline. At the heart of the doc is ultra-practical information with the potential to galvanize a broad audience.
The Tickells don’t argue against the car itself, even in their incisive portrait of China’s transformation from a bicycle culture to the world’s largest auto market. Sounding warnings while emphasizing informed optimism, they don’t preach to the converted. Their thesis transcends red-state/blue-state polarities. Issues of sustainability, geopolitical security and dollars-and-cents pragmatism all figure into writer Johnny O’Hara’s narration, delivered by Jason Bateman in friendly educator mode.
Tracing Americans’ love affair with the car and their lack of choice at the pump, the filmmakers spend more than half an hour on familiar backstory. It’s important history, to be sure: the collusion between automakers and oil companies to destroy the electric trolley system, the rise of OPEC and the ’70s gas crisis, the bankruptcy of Detroit. There are incisive points about oil’s outsize role in U.S. foreign policy (and wars).
The directors and their interviewees connect the dots with concision, but for stretches of the first half the film feels like it’s running on empty. The shift from quiet how-we-got-here outrage to hope, in the form of hands-on specifics, torques Pump and gives it momentum. From a well-illustrated lecture, the movie turns into an advocacy manual, illuminating information that Big Oil would rather keep under wraps. Joining the talking-head policy wonks are entrepreneurs and citizen hackers who have devised real solutions to counter oil’s stranglehold.
Beyond the promising looks at Tesla Motors honcho Elon Musk’s luxury electric cars and Brazil’s populist biofuel success, the eye-opener is that millions of American vehicles are already equipped to switch between gas and ethanol, whether they’re ready-to-go — and wildly under-promoted — Flex Fuel cars, or other recent models that would require only a simple software tweak or kit installation. The further problem, of course, is the limited availability of gasoline alternatives. The road to reform remains a long one, with many U.S. legislators beholden to the oil industry.
In the meantime, Pump offers a map to true competition à la Brazil’s, and argues convincingly that there would be profound and wide-ranging benefits if American car owners were in the driver’s seat when it comes to fuel-tank decisions.
The Bottom Line
The straightforward, clear-sighted advocacy journalism isn’t always scintillating, but it comes with a strong dose of eye-opening how’s and practical how-to’s.
Friday, September 19 (Submarine Deluxe)
Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell
Production companies: Fuel Freedom Foundation, iDeal Film Partners
Narrator: Jason Bateman
Directors: Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell
Screenwriter: Johnny O’Hara
Producers: Eyal Aronoff, Joseph “Yossie” Hollander, Rebecca Harrell Tickell
Executive producers: Jana Edelbaum, Rachel Cohen
Co-executive producers: John Paul DeJoria, Burton Richie, Stephen Nemeth
Director of photography: Martin DiCicco
Editors: Sean P. Keenan, Philip Norden, Ryan A. Nichols
Music: Richard Gibbs, Austin Creek
Rated PG, 88 minutes