A new documentary is built around a simple economic message: Americans are under the oil industry’s thumb, and it’s time to get out. It’s not the most original message, but given the political minefield of its subject, “Pump” is a remarkably evenhanded film.
To make its case, “Pump” begins with a brief history of the oil industry, specifically, the rise of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, and its subsequent division into 34 smaller companies once the government broke up its monopoly in 1911.
According to “Pump,” the government may have freed us from that particular monopoly, but a century later, Americans are still limited to a single fuel option at the pump.
This is where the documentary gets dark. A historical recap details a conspiracy-led deconstruction of the public streetcar system and the gas crisis of the 1970s in the wake of Israel’s conflict with Egypt and Syria in 1973. “Pump” points an accusing finger at OPEC, a company that controls 78 percent of the world’s oil supply, and in a concerning sequence, illustrates how the rise of consumerism in China is only going to make a bleak future even bleaker.
The documentary connects financial crises such as the 777-point DOW drop in September of 2008 to the $147 per barrel peak oil price in the previous July, and the bankruptcies of General Motors and later the city of Detroit are cited as evidence of the “end of the oil age.”
It is in the midst of all this doom and gloom that “Pump” makes its most obvious omission. In the course of exploring America’s oil options, the documentary isolates its analysis to the fracking process, and fails to discuss the potential of oil sources like Alaska or the environmental causes that have blocked their development.
But even with that, it isn’t hard to make the case that Americans would be better off with fuel alternatives, and the second half of “Pump” is focused on exploring some of them. First up is the Tesla, the latest and greatest electric car, and then comes the palatability of bio fuels like ethanol. But “Pump” also explores the potential of some lesser-known options such as methanol, or “wood alcohol,” and profiles the success Brazil had in creating fuel competition at its pumps.
Former Brazilian President Lula Da Silva is interviewed for that particular segment, and "Pump" draws input from a variety of other sources, including former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister. By the time the credits roll, what’s interesting is not the potential alternatives so much as the fact that, according to the film, many of our vehicles (such as Ford vehicles labeled with a “Flex Fuel” logo) are already prepared for the new fuels.
There’s plenty to debate in “Pump,” but to its credit, Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s documentary does a good job of appealing to the needs and concerns of its most likely resistant audience. Rather than emphasize purely environmentalist concerns such as pollution or global warming, or wave the flag of conspiracy with a divisive “Bush Lied, People Died” style-slogan, “Pump” frames its rationale around traditional American values such as freedom of choice and the essential nature of competition.
When that doesn’t work, it’s easy to appeal to the American wallet, as anyone who has watched the price of gas over the last decade can attest. “Pump” may be a little too preoccupied with oil industry conspiracy theories (Prohibition was really an effort to keep the auto industry from making alcohol-powered cars?), but its big-picture message isn’t a tough one to swallow.
“Pump” is rated PG for some mild thematic material.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.