'And We Go Green' Review: Fear and Yearning in Formula E
And We Go Green, the film about Formula E, is a rare thing, a story about peace and redemption, disguised as a sports documentary. *Spoilers*.
“Here’s our first loser!”
Nelson Piquet Jr.’s reputation is probably doomed to always be associated with events more than a decade ago, but he was Formula E’s first champion. According to And We Go Green, Fisher Stevens and Malcolm Venville’s documentary account of the 2017-18 Formula E season, he is also a son who wants to please his dad, but never quite can.
That quote was what the younger Piquet said his father would say if a driver finished second in a race. Piquet Sr. is out of reach, described but never seen, never appearing at his son's races in electric motorsport, in a film in which every one of Formula E’s participants seems to be grasping for something that is described, but is not available to them. For Lucas Di Grassi, there is little sympathy for Piquet's plight, and the two Brazilians seem to be very different people, one a steely, self-motivated man who shows little regard for what others think of him, the other a sensitive man who, at his core, wants to be liked.
Jean-Eric Vergne, in the film, is depicted as on a hero’s journey as per Joseph Campbell. This might be something borne of the film needing a central figure, and settling upon the driver who wins the title at the end of it. However it also seems to be because Vergne is willing to show the deep vulnerabilities that drive him to greater heights., even after being dropped by the Red Bull programme at the end of the 2014 F1 season. We’ve become used to the highest-achieving sportspeople giving little away, so his candour in interviews comes as a surprise.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a project which could have been a tepid, made-for-streaming sports doc along the lines of the soporific Netflix profile of French footballer Antoine Griezmann, or the comparable Juventus and Barcelona features, is made into something far more meaningful by showing, for all to see, the journey the Frenchman took from fighting off the negativity of rejection, to celebrating a first championship in a form of a sport that he had, earlier, been falling out of love with.
“He was in a dark place,” says Sam Bird of time as team-mate to Vergne in Season 2. They rarely spoke, according to Bird, and it was not an enjoyable experience for either. At that stage in his career, Vergne was not ready to win titles. Indeed, his father details how he lost a great deal of sleep worrying about his son, and hurting over the “wasted years” in a bad car at the back of the F1 grid.
Vergne and Andre Lotterer in the 2017-18 season (photo used under licence, copyright FIA Formula E)
There is also the shadow of tragedy. Vergne was a close friend of Jules Bianchi, the most recent Formula One driver to die at the track. In a rare misstep, the UK TV edit of And We Go Green illustrates Vergne’s tearful reminiscence of that F1 race at Suzuka with archive footage of Bianchi’s fatal accident, something not necessary for the film’s narrative flow. The period surrounding the loss of his friend and compatriot seemed understandably scarring to Vergne, as it coincided with his being dropped from the Toro Rosso team, and, Vergne says, the disappearance of all his other supposed friends of the time.
Through And We Go Green runs a theme of young people finding peace, or at least some way of quelling their anxieties, through race driving, which may be endlessly complex in terms of the input it requires from them, but which requires such peaks of concentration that it seems to make them all feel present and calm in a way they cannot when away from the wheel. Bird, according to ARS Tecnica, was told by Stevens that his early interviews were too sterile to be used in the finished product, and that if he did not step up his game, he would be left out of the final cut.
The result of this pep-talk is an illuminating chat outside a Paris cafe where Bird says there is “more chance of me flying to the moon on a banana” than racing in F1. Bird had been a reserve driver for Mercedes in F1, but says to the filmmakers that he is happier in Formula E, and seems to genuinely believe it. It’s as if we’re witnessing, in real-time, the journey from denial, to anger, to acceptance, of people who dreamed for years of being in the F1 goldfish bowl, then, in the cases of all the profiled drivers, played a role in it and were either ejected from it or left of their own accord.
There are funny moments, even in this very serious showcase for electric street racing. In one of the earliest scenes, Vergne and his team-mate of the time, Andre Lotterer, are on a boat in Hong Kong Harbour. Lotterer receives a text to his phone that he doesn’t want to answer. His younger team-mate says “just ignore it. Or answer ‘why, do you care?’” Although Lotterer is, as he explains, almost ten years older than the man he shared a team with at the time, Vergne, the star of the film in many ways, radiates a wisdom beyond his years, and it is the former Porsche and Audi sportscar driver who seems more the ingenue.
Lotterer, in his first season of electric motorsport, begins with the air of someone who views it as a bit of fun. Asking Vergne about whether, in the final season of mandatory car changes, it is possible to swap chassis outside of the prescribed window in the race, Lotterer is told, “no, read the rules.” “I found this job where you don't have to study anything,” the German replies.
Endlessly complex in the cockpit
And We Go Green does a great job of telling an audience which it assumes may have never seen a Formula E race how complex the championship is for teams and drivers. Regen is explained by Bird, at that cafe, spooning tea out of and back into his cup, to symbolise lost and regained energy. Founder Alejandro Agag explains to audience surrogate Leonardo DiCaprio, who was an early investor in the Venturi Formula E team and so probably already knows what he is being told, about the glycerine generators powering an E-Prix paddock. If DiCaprio is the willing foil for exposition, journalist Hazel Southwell, in the absence of an overall voiceover, takes the role of principal narrator, and her input is comprehensive and frank.
Formula E: Seemingly simple, actually complex (photo used under licence, copyright FIA Formula E)
We also share in drivers’ early-morning schleps to the circuit. The frostbite-inducing coldness of Marrakesh at 5am is something that punctures any thoughts the viewer might have had about the glamorous lifestyle of a racing driver. It’s all part of the one-day race meetings that have always made up Agag’s masterplan, meaning Formula E could move into a city and back out with minimal disruption.
Minimal disruption is the name of the game for Formula E. It is a racing series that wants to provide the highest entertainment to spectators, at the lowest possible cost to the planet. Agag stresses, sitting on a yellow sofa and smoking a cigar in a flat shot knowingly reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s films, that he is not an environmentalist. What he has done, instead, is provide one of the finest marketing tools a car manufacturer could hope for, together with a way of developing more and more efficient electric powertrains.
The technology under the skin might be fascinating - it is - but Formula E would not have lasted as long as it has if it were a dry automotive proving ground. And We Go Green took far longer than was hoped by Formula E insiders to be released widely, for reasons not publicly known. In some ways, its release now brings handy comparisons for those of us who have savoured every moment of The Last Dance, the glossy Netflix documentary which claimed to be a tell-all account of the Chicago Bulls dressing room in Michael Jordan’s final season for them, but which left its main protagonist with an enhanced reputation, and was, in the end, an enjoyable but glossy account of a legendary team’s valedictory campaign.
The Last Dance teased at the idea of being a risky proposition, and gave viewers a vantage point they had never before had, providing the chance to experience life inside a professional basketball organisation, but And We Go Green, helmed by two filmmakers, Stevens and Venville, who do not come from a racing background and take a nothing-off-limits approach, spares nobody, and so functions less as an advert for Formula E and more as a piece of journalism by creators who were not in awe of the participants, and so did not make the mistake of allowing themselves to be overawed or intimidated into compromising their brief.
And We Go Green is, at its heart, a story of people seeking purpose and finding a place where they are valued. It is, much like the sport it covers, imperfect, unpolished, a little bit ragged around the edges, but also a sports documentary like they used to make in the days before PR approval was needed for everything.
Further reading and listening
Watch 'And We Go Green' on the Formula E official YouTube channel, and on a variety of other platforms
Read more of Stuart Garlick's writing on electric motorsport
Listen to Stuart's documentary podcast on the birth of Formula E and its first ever race