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Backfired: When VW Lied to America     cover photo

Backfired: When VW Lied to America 2018

Recommended with Reservations

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Media Policy Center
Directed by Dale Bell
DVD, color, 88 min.

High School - General Adult
Automobile Industry, Business, Climate Change, Ethics, Environmental Justice, History, Global Warming, Government, Industrial Design, Physical Sciences, Politics

Date Entered: 01/11/2019

Reviewed by Alan Witt, Business Librarian, SUNY Geneseo

Backfired documents the VW emissions masking scandal, covering both the historical context and the blow-by-blow accounting of events. The film promotes its utility as a business ethics case study, but in practice, it focuses more on the history of the clean air movement and environmentalism, using the scandal as a constant touchstone. Backfired explores the key players who uncovered the scandal, including both interviews and narration.

Stylistically, the film has a constant thread of urgency to it, sledgehammered into the viewers’ consciousness through a constant, punchy soundtrack and a relentless use of the present tense for all narration. This is leavened by the interviews, all of which speak in the past tense, but the overall effect is to be gripped with a sense that one is watching a World War 2 era newscast. Backfired has a definite point of view, contempt dripping from the voice of the narrator at several points while describing VWs misdeeds. Given that VW admitted to all charges, this is not unjustified and at times feels quite satisfying.

The documentary focuses on making the case that scofflaws like VW are prime contributors to the problem of smog on the small scale and climate change on the far end. Accordingly, the focus of the film shifts frequently from the scandal towards larger questions of environmental change. This is driven in part by the personal nature of the film: for example, Governor Jerry Brown of California has his exploits portrayed in detail. Where the film falters as a case study is that the people who actually perpetrated the scandal are largely invisible. The film does not examine internal documents, interview key figures from VW, or talk about the internal structure of the company in more than surface detail. These are glossed over for the basic narrative, which has the virtue of making the whole scandal easily comprehensible but sacrifices the capacity for deeper exploration.

In terms of overall presentation, the film shifts its tone and genre frequently, vacillating between standard documentary (the interviews) and 1940’s newscaster (the narration in the present tense with urgency and tension ridden backing music). At the end of the film, it throws in a memorial to a political aide to Governor Brown. This would have been understandable if said aide had been mentioned anywhere in the preceding film, but as it stands it completely shifts the tone of the film and breaks from the main point of the piece. Finally, Backfired ends with an 80’s movie style “where are they now” overlay with instrumental music and captions, pulling the narrative back on track.

As a coherent piece, the film is marred by mood swings, the interpolation at the end, and relentless presentism; however, its overall structure and clear narrative lend itself to classroom use. Subdivided into 10 segments, Backfired can easily be shown in chunks and discussed in class for a variety of different topics such as environmentalism, European vs. American legal business structures, the VW scandal itself, or U.S. politics. Its potential for deep exploration as a business case is limited since it covers the matter at a surface level, showing how VW was caught but not drilling deeply into the company culture and the actors involved within the company. This deficit, however, grants it potential for high school and intro-level college courses, as the surface coverage is also very accessible and easy to follow. The price is affordable, especially with public performance rights, and this makes it a useful purchase for schools with classes focusing on these issues. This combination of flawed presentation with clear narrative leads to a verdict of recommended with reservations.