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Elon Musk's Crash Course Review: FX Documentary Digs Into a Deadly Cult of Personality

The latest installment in The New York Times Presents is a shocking indictment of a man and his vision

Kyle Fowle
Elon Musk, The New York Times Presents: Elon Musk's Crash Course

Elon Musk, The New York Times Presents: Elon Musk's Crash Course


FX hardly could have picked a better time to release Elon Musk's Crash Course, the latest documentary in its The New York Times Presents series. Crash Course, which focuses on Tesla, Elon Musk, and the allure and danger of Tesla's self-driving car technology, arrives as Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX figurehead, is embroiled in a controversial bid to buy Twitter. As is the case with Musk, it's difficult to tell how much of his positioning is honest and how much is bluster, a public performance of sorts. He's an enigma, someone who's prone to both savvy business ideas and laughable online trolling.

What Elon Musk's Crash Course — premiering Friday at 10/9c on FX — immediately does right is use the New York Times and the federal government's investigation into Tesla's Autopilot technology as a way to analyze Musk as a public figure, and a potentially dangerous one at that. While much of the episode is focused on the many accidents, some deadly, that Tesla's self-driving cars have been involved in, the documentary is at its best when it uses the insights brought about by these specific tragedies to comment on Musk's role as the head of Tesla and as a very public figure whom many people adore.

The essence of the documentary is that Tesla's automated driving technology is nowhere near capable of what it's marketed as being able to do, and that government regulation is having a lot of trouble keeping up with that technology, meaning that the safety of Tesla owners and others on the road is being threatened. The documentary is fairly straightforward in its filmmaking style: You have your talking heads, your primary source material like 9-1-1 calls and company documents, and a subdued color palette meant to underscore the seriousness of the subject matter. But what it lacks in style it more than makes up for in content, using timely quotes, cuts, and juxtapositions that drive home the film's points and make an impact.


Elon Musk's Crash Course


  • Thorough argument
  • Feels vital and necessary to this moment
  • Lets the subjects speak for themselves


  • Not exactly reinventing the documentary filmmaking wheel

 In particular, Elon Musk's Crash Course is sharp in how it lays out Musk's vision for the future of the auto industry, which has its merits and ostensibly noble goals, and how that vision is often put ahead of reality. The first part of the documentary builds anticipation, showing the growth and potential of both Tesla and Musk, before revealing the disasters to come. We watch as Musk's rise is chronicled, from his early days at video game startup Rocket Science to becoming the man with the vision for Tesla's electric cars, all while the doc's opening minutes — in which we hear 9-1-1 calls about a gruesome crash — linger in our minds.

Elon Musk's Crash Course is structured to hit you in the gut. It's sharp in the way it shows how Musk is more than just your average CEO and innovator because of his public-facing persona and how uniquely he's linked with his companies. He's a brand himself; his tweets can send a stock skyrocketing or plummeting, and he has consumers who treat him as a deity of sorts. 

Among the documentary's many talking heads, the most fascinating and instructive is Kim Paquette, a beta tester for Tesla's "Full Self-Driving" (or FSD) cars. Paquette explains that there's an "early access program" in which a group of Tesla owners test the software privately, rather than through any sort of public program or through professional test drivers. The episode makes it clear that Tesla is essentially using the public as guinea pigs without really being upfront about the potential dangers, but what's more interesting is how Paquette talks about Musk and Tesla. "Elon Musk is someone who comes along once in a generation," she says before showing off some of the toy Tesla cars she has on her bookshelf while saying it's "an honor" to get to be "part of history."

Elon Musk's Crash Course never berates the people who think like Kim, never disparages those who put Musk on a pedestal and think he's some sort of revolutionary genius. Rather, the documentary uses their words to contrast Musk's actual achievements against his promises, creating a rather spellbinding look at how Musk, and in turn many companies and public figures, are more interested in myth-making, marketing, and storytelling than they are in delivering a viable product. 

The accidents detailed here are horrific, both in terms of the lives lost and what it means for public safety as self-driving cars continue to roll out with limited regulatory testing or intervention, and it's important for this investigation to be out there. But what makes Elon Musk's Crash Course really worth watching is the way it uses its material to dig into the ways the collision of celebrity and capitalism can have a dangerous effect on the public good. 

Premieres: Friday, May 20 at 10/9c on FX
Who's behind it: Emma Schwartz (director and producer)
For fans of: O.J.: Made in America; The Jinx; Dark Side of the Ring
How many episodes we watched: 1 of 1