Just about any major Film Festival needs filler films, to pad out arbitrary program streams and unenviable daytime sessions, and Bikes vs. Cars is indicative of a particular species of these. The documentary holds all the good intentions in the world to further a particular cause, but lacks the intellectual rigour or discretion to back it up – nifty info graphics along side uncited statistics and uncredited amateur talking heads in an unfocused film that seeks to pass muster on goodwill alone. I suppose Bikes vs. Cars doesn’t promise any more than it delivers (in case you were wondering, bikes win) but this film is so inept and often intellectually dishonest that even the easiest argument in the world – let’s use fewer cars, guys – feels dubious. In fact, the film feels like a cross between an angry social justice Facebook post and a 9/11 conspiracy documentary you’d find floating freely around the internet.
Fredrik Gertten’s film starts with cyclists in Los Angeles and São Paolo, looking at the respective problems surrounding bikes and cars in both cities. Bikes vs. Cars already feels like its treading unfair ground by using two of the most notoriously traffic-ridden cities in the world, but this isn’t where the film’s biggest problems lie. Almost immediately the amateur cyclists start riddling off grand statements and hypotheses that Gertten’s film can barely keep up with. Developers build housing far from city centers to capitalise on low land cost, which in turn drags people away from the city, leading to the development of freeways, while this is going on petrol companies lobby to have more freeways build so that they can sell more petrol, all while car companies create their own efficiency ratings to appear more eco-friendly, while…and so on. Some of these claims feel legitimate, some more spurious – at one point it gets within a hair’s breadth of invoking Lizard People conspiracies – but the film doesn’t really even attempt to actually substantiate these claims. In fact it’s hard to think of a documentary in recent memory that did less in the way of investigative journalism; they found a handful of passionate eco-friendly cyclists and let them talk. And talk. And talk. For a film that spends so much time talking about how bad traffic is in metropolitan cities, we spend remarkably little time with any car driver actually explaining why they drive or complaining about traffic themselves.
But it’s not the lack of actual facts that make the film so disagreeable; rather, it’s the intellectual dishonesty and manipulation that fluctuates between the inane and the offensive. The only people who offer up a defence of automobiles is one man at a car showcase event. He’s clearly supposed to be portrayed as biased, a man whose support for cars is really only out of nostalgia and personal preference, but even he makes basic arguments that the film struggles to answer for. For instance, he questions one of the film’s basic underlying accusations, the notion that the car companies are against sustainable energy – while I can think of reasons why that might be, but the film doesn’t even attempt to posit these. The other is disgraced ex-Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, ranting and raving in Parliament how automobile drivers hate cyclists. Putting forth Ford as a symbol of legislative inadequacy and stubbornness to address the problems (not even from either of the main cities in the film) feels like one of the biggest cheap shots in a film loaded with them. This is to say nothing of vague, uncited statistics like “In Europe 30 million people have anxiety disorders related to automobile noise” that are sprinkled throughout the film. However none of these remotely approach the film’s lowpoint, in which the film cuts to a closeup of a mourner writing “In heaven, everyone rides bikes” on a placard at a roadside memorial for a killed cyclist – it resonates not so much as offensive as it does risible.
Giving such a film our lowest rating did briefly give me pause – in a way I’m punishing the film for having an impossibly broad scope, and it ostensibly wants to look at more than just the environmental effects cars produce. While narrowing its focus would have strengthened the film – the motor industry’s unwillingness to adapt to these challenges could be explored, and not just stated – it feels particularly egregious that the film is so painfully drawn out and dull. Its visual style consists of not much outside of countless shots of traffic-laden highways, with slowly drip-fed facts superimposed; the talking heads could similarly be similarly condensed and edited down – a late scene of a woman taking about how bad it must be sitting in traffic for hours (despite the fact that she doesn’t drive) is indicative of this film’s undisciplined style. There’s about fifteen minutes of material here spread very, very thinly to make it to feature length. It would have made a compelling video in the style of Kony 2012 or more realistically, a segment for John Stewart or John Oliver, but as it stands in Bikes vs. Cars, we lose.