Every few years, Joshua Tickell makes a documentary extolling the virtues of biodiesel. First there was 2008’s Fuel, in which the filmmaker inserted himself and a wealth of celebrities into an Inconvenient Truth-style call to change the world through alternative energy. Then came 2011’s Freedom, where he and his wife and co-director Rebecca Harrell Tickell took a road trip in a van powered by fast-food oil—and the spiritual uplift of even more celebrities. Now the Tickells have continued the fight with Pump, another evangelizing enviro-doc that aims to get the world onboard the fuel-freedom train. It’s unclear who would want to sit through three separate films arguing the same points about the same issue, but at least no one can accuse the Tickells of not doing enough to spread the energy gospel.
Unlike Fuel and Freedom, Pump is (likely intentionally) free of either the directors’ personal lives or any well-meaning famous people—save for narrator Jason Bateman, who, in reciting dry minutiae about the economic projections of alcohol-based fuel, has found the only script more needlessly dense than Arrested Development’s fourth season. Narration aside, the film looks like a standard 21st-century issue documentary: fast cutting, lots of talking heads, and a mix of stock footage and crisp location shots. The Tickells’ angle into their cause is noticeably shrewd, geared toward mass consumption. Instead of beating the drum over climate change or societal collapse, they frame alternative fuel in terms of national security—and crucially, consumerism. The importance of granting Americans “a choice at the pump” is a common refrain.
The early passages are the most interesting, like a segment on China’s booming car culture that profiles a middle-class family’s unsuccessful online vehicle bid, and a “marriage market” where young women prize car ownership as a key factor in selecting a mate. The Tickells also talk to John Hofmeister, a former Shell president who recounts the public vitriol he faced while at the top. But about midway through the film, some assertions creep in that are thinly sourced at best, including that oil baron John Rockefeller helped pass Prohibition because he was scared of Henry Ford developing alcohol-fueled cars. (Never mind that Ford supported Prohibition too.)
An independently minded assessment of America’s energy crisis this isn’t. Pump is co-presented by the Fuel Freedom Foundation, of which Hofmeister—what a coincidence—is an advisory board member. The foundation advocates for alternative fuel of all kinds, including ethanol, methanol, electric cars, and natural gas, all of which come out of Pump looking pretty darn good, though the Tickells at least pay mild lip service to the controversy surrounding fracking. What they don’t do is acknowledge the legitimate policy debate happening over the merits of ethanol, including the environmental cost of corn farmers razing millions of acres of conservation land. This isn’t really surprising, but it does stand as further evidence of the need to recognize point-of-view in social-issue documentaries.
Ultimately, the Tickells cram so much into their 90-minute cause machine that nothing really sticks, and seemingly crucial interviews soon become distant memories. Was that Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, discussing his country’s energy independence for a hot second? Did the filmmakers travel to Iceland for a scant two minutes of footage? Did Elon Musk show up just to say hi and pimp his Teslas?
Pump concludes with one of the most amusing call-to-action sequences in recent memory: a detailed explanation of how drivers can “hack” their cars into running on diverse types of fuel, followed by the sheepish admission that doing so isn’t strictly legal. Then there are what must be a dozen rousing statements about pump freedom from the film’s various subjects, all layered atop one another as the stock footage and music crescendos ad infinitum. It’s the perfect distillation of this film’s absurd mix of wonky, obfuscating factoids and we-can-all-make-a-difference empty optimism. Maybe the inevitable next biofuel film will be different.