May 6, 2019  (Web Review)

Backfired: When VW Lied to America

(2018) 61 min. DVD: $295. Bullfrog Films ( PPR. SDH captioned. ISBN: 1-948745-11-9.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Produced by the nonprofit Media Policy Center, filmmaker Dale Bell’s documentary focuses on the scandal involving German automaker Volkswagen and its attempt to circumvent U.S. federal vehicle emissions standards and the even more restrictive state-level standards in California. Volkswagen was caught secretly installing devices in its diesel cars to give the impression that its vehicles were environmentally friendly. Research in 2013 by graduate students at West Virginia University accidentally stumbled upon Volkswagen’s deception, which triggered a chain of events that culminated in a $15 billion fine, the largest ever levied against an auto company. Backfired notes that European regulatory oversight did not punish Volkswagen with the same severity as U.S. regulators, and a quick history lesson illustrates why California’s environmental regulations are more stringent than federal mandates. However, political prejudices occasionally intrude—the film gives the impression of surprise that California’s Republican governors Ronald Reagan, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were concerned about ecological issues, and it notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was “created by Congress” but conveniently ignores that President Richard Nixon gladly signed it into law. Still, the underlying story here is disturbing and compelling. Recommended. Aud: C, P. (P. Hall)