Review: And We Go Green

And We Go Green

Trailer

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Vroom, vroom

I would classify myself as at least a sort of fair-weather casual motorsport fan. I know more than the average person about the ins-and-outs of Le Mans, NASCAR or Moto GP, but Formula 1 always used to be my main port of call. I remember vividly enough an apogee of interest in the late 90’s, a time of stand-out personalities and some great racing. And similarly, I remember the doldrums of my interest in the 00’s, inspired by the drab dominance of once Michael Schumacher. Fast forward a decade and a half and the situation is much the same, only the dominant bore is Lewis Hamilton and the top echelon of motorsport is more entertaining in its accompanying Netflix show than in its actual sport.

I can’t remember when exactly I first heard of the all-electric equivalent but I gave Formula E a try at the start of the 5th season in 2019 and was pretty instantly hooked. Here was a motorsport championship that was different, competitive, open to new ideas and carrying a ramshackle charm in its lay-outs its presentations, its commentators, a real seat-of-your-pants affair, that came up with entertaining races week in, week out. That 5th season blew Lewis Hamilton’s latest stroll to another world title, that says far more about the rest of that division than his own skill, out of the water. All before you get to the environmental element of course. And then Formula E decided to get into the world of film. Would And We Go Green be a worthy summation/depiction of what is destined to be the only game in town when it comes to motorsport? Or is it just another forgettable propaganda piece?

Global warming, an ever-increasing market for electric cars and emissions scandals are events that all help to propel along the formation of the world’s first single-seater world motor-racing championship purely for electric vehicles: Formula E. In this documentary, using the 4th season of the championship as a basis, directors Fischer Stevens and Malcolm Venville follow the story of Formula E through the people who organised it, the journalists who follow it and most importantly the drivers who make it what it is, and what it may yet be.

Fears that And We Go Green will be a propaganda piece are deflected rather astutely in its opening, depicting the the first weekend of the 4th season. As the cars line up in Hong Kong, the fans breath is hushed and the competition’s owners smile from the sidelines, we get one red light, two red lights…and then everything stops. The third, fourth and fifth lights don’t appear, and Jack Nicholls has a wait a bit to give the titular indication that the race has started. The drivers wait, the fans are confused and Formula E Chairman Alejandro Agag starts cursing at the people operating the start lights, who are baffled at the technical error. This is Formula E: the cutting edge of electric motorsport, and the wild west in terms of getting things right. The race does get going eventually.

What follows is a bit of an uneven documentary, one that has to try and balance a general history/analysis of Formula E with a more traditional narrative in its examination of the 4th season. The first part is accomplished well enough, and has some striking moments, not least an early glimpse of Agag proclaiming that the creation of Formula E was for business reasons first, then environmental reasons after, as he puffs away on a large cigar. A former MEP, son-in-law of a Spanish Prime Minister (whose witnesses to his wedding included Juan Carlos I, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi), part-owner of an English football club, Agag is a fascinating figure, and we don’t really get to see enough of him. Some of the other talking heads make the point that Formula E needs a politically experienced hob nobber at the top, and Agag is certainly that: a man who can get things done, whether it is convincing various places all over the world to open their cities up for Formula E, or arranging photo ops where Pope Benedict blesses one of the cars.

But there is still a bit too much telling and not showing regards Agag’s conversational skill: interesting is seeing him explain the way they have gone about trying to improve battery life to the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio, or outlining a physical assault he received from some slightly crazy-sounding fossil fuel advocate, but these moments are few and far between. Other interviewees give the film some great perspectives, not least Hazel Southwell, a freelance motorsport journalist whose gender marks her out in the male dominated world of professional racing, and who gives some personal background on many of the drivers and other personalities that litter the world of Formula E. There’s various celebrities, parents and commentators as well, but And We Go Green doesn’t really do a whole load with them.

Instead, the film gives the lions share of its running time to the story of the season battle, and here a key flaw is imminently identifiable. There are five drivers that get to be the primary talking heads: Jean-Eric Vergne, Andre Lotterer, Sam Bird, Lucas di Grassi and Nelson Piquet Jr. As the season progresses Vergne and Bird, the chief rivals for the championship, become the main focus, and the other three are left behind, having initially seemed to be quite important to the story being told. Lotterer’s efforts to match up to his DS Tcheetah teammate, Piquet Jr’s continuing efforts to find redemption after “Crashgate” and di Grassi’s obvious disdain for Piquet Jr for the same, they all seem to get dropped.

It seems clear to me that the creators of this documentary began the filming process thinking di Grassi and Piquet Jr would be the big story of the season, then pivoted to Vergne and Bird when things changed, and this aspect of the documentary thus has an uneven feeling. To use what is rapidly becoming a tired old chestnut, it feels like the kind of project that needs serialisation. Netflix’s Drive To Survive is the obvious thing to point to, that avoids the pitfalls of not knowing how the season is going to shake out when you start filming by dedicating one episode to individual teams or drivers, thus neutering the need for an over-arching narrative.

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The drivers of Formula E are at the heart of And We Go Green.

That being said, the Vergne/Bird stuff is good. Though the approach is a little scatter shot, interviews with the two allow for a spotlight to be placed on the cutthroat world of professional racing, where dreams of making it to F1 frequently turn to disappointment and burnout. Vergne made it to the top of the mountain but had a torrid time with Toro Rosso, which included a crash diet-induced hospitalisation when he was deemed to be a few pounds too heavy for the car, and then the devastating blow of seeing good friend Jules Bianchi suffer fatal injuries in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. The moment when Vergne attempts to speak about Bianchi, but is unable to find the words, is very affecting. Bird meanwhile got as far as being the test driver for Mercedes, and nowhere else, and obviously feels regret for being a nearly-man. Formula E allowed a measure of healing and redemption for both men, to get their dreams of competing for world motorsport titles back on track. In some ways, the journey of the two matches the journey of Formula E: initially considered a busted flush and a joke, before becoming something more.

I think that And We Go Green does capture something about why we are so obsessed, sometimes, with racing car drivers. Films like Rush did this from the perspective of entertainment, commenting that men willing to put themselves in the position of facing death in a competition of speed were like modern-day knights. Motorsports, from Formula 1 to Formula E, to everything else, has never just been about cars, engines, turns and chequered flags, they have thrived on the backs of the larger-than-life people in the cars. And We Go Green showcases some of them and their stories well, from Piquet Jr’s unresolved relationship with his largely absentee father that he races to try and please, to Vergne and Bird’s desperate need to win, comparing the desire to the necessity of breathing.

It also helps that the two come across as so personable and, well, human, at other moments. Early on cameras pick up on Vergne coaching his team-mate Lotterer over what to text back to an unhappy sounding paramour (after advising a nonchalant approach, Vergne suggests he should start charging for his romantic skills). Bird almost enjoys getting under the skin of “Jev” in high-pressure situations, but deals with his own pressure with tense runs and nervous energy when watching his rivals in qualifying. The two men, former team-mates and always rivals, have nearly come to blows on some occasions on and off the track, but also, in one critical moment near the conclusion, showcase the kind of camaraderie that has always been associated with professional motorsport racers.

The two go hammer-and-tongs in the final races of the season, both trying to make up for previous shortcomings, both trying to deal with the pressure. I won’t spoil the ending for those that are unaware, but the directors do a decent job of showcasing the drama of those final few races, even while the previous spotlights slowly dim as other racers fall out of contention. Crafting a narrative out of such a jumble of potential outcomes is a difficult task, but And We Go Green does at least find a decent conclusion in there somewhere.

Visually, it makes the best of Malcolm Venville’s experience of car photography in those sections dedicated to the actual racing, and Steven’s more personable touch for everything else. The film looks slick, and does as much as is humanly possible to get across how exciting Formula E can be. Stevans involvement, and Di Caprio’s, also calls back to 2016’s Before The Flood, and marks And We Go Green firmly as an environmental exercise, even if Agag is inclined to consider such things secondary in many ways.

And We Go Green does deal with a few of the criticisms that have been thrown Formula E’s way. It’s been accused of just being a sop to the public following the emissions scandal, but Agag is happy to concede that competition got a boost from such a thing. The teams involved haven’t exactly gone running for the hills at the first opportunity. The car swapping of the first four seasons is pointed at as an understandable origin for ridicule, but Formula E was doing the best with what it had, and as of season five the cars can go a whole race. The street circuits are too narrow, but Formula E is getting into places, like New York and London, that Formula 1 can’t. Formula E cars are too quiet, and I suppose this is a problem if you have the attention span of a gnat.

At the end of the day, Formula E, or some future version of it, is going to be the only game in town when it comes to the top tier of motorsport. Formula 1 in its current guise won’t last, not least because it is dependent on an energy source that the world has a finite level of. Pure fans of F1 might turn their noses up at E, calling it gimmicky, underwhelming, all spectacle and no substance, but there is no escaping the fact that electric racing stands to expand at the same rate as the electric car market. The opinion that Formula E is simply more entertaining – far more entertaining I would say – than the frequently pathetic facade of competition that the current version of F1 deigns to throw up (where the graphic “Battle for 7th” says everything you need to know) is gaining currency fast.

And We Go Green had its planned release schedule largely blown up by COVID, much like how Formula E’s sixth season was stopped for months. It’s apropos to give it a look now if you can then, as Formula E restarts next week, with the first of several races to be held in the Berlin track, the organisation planning on making course alterations for every race to keep things from getting too mundane. Even in the days of coronavirus, Formula E is finding ways to approach things differently. Such an competition deserves more support, and this film is a good way of going about getting it. It captures some of what makes Formula E, and motorsport generally, great entertainment, and offers an acceptable, if not fully-fleshed-out, summation of where Formula E came from and where it might be going. The structure can be distracting in its unevenness, but it’s forgivable. If you can, this is worth watching, just like Formula E. Recommended.

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And we go forward.

(All images are copyright of Hulu).

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1 Response to Review: And We Go Green

  1. Pingback: Film Rankings And Awards 2020 | Never Felt Better

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