teslaWhen people hear the name Tesla these days, most probably think of the car from Elon Musk. But Musk named that car after one of the great unsung inventors of the last century, Nikola Tesla. Tesla invented so many things we take for granted these days — alternating current, radio (before Marconi), even neon — but he died penniless and forgotten. This documentary attempts to bring his name and genius to a wider audience. I’ve known about him for years, as no doubt have most science geeks. And anyone who saw The Prestige might remember David Bowie’s turn as Tesla in that film. Mostly this earnest documentary concentrates on his attempts to build a tower in Long Island that he believed could transmit electrical power through the air around the world. Free power to the people!

Sounded like a great idea, but his key benefactor J. P. Morgan who fronted him $150,000 soon realized how free electricity might cut into the profits he was making from General Electric and his coal companies, and cut him off midway through the project. And though Tesla tried to raise funds after Morgan pulled out, he was never able to prove his invention worked. And on top of it, just when he lost his funding, his dear friend who might have helped, John Jacob Astor, went down on the Titanic. His experimental station called Wardenclyffe designed by Gilded Age architect Sanford White on Long Island was also taken and the incomplete tower destroyed. And when he died years later in poverty, all his designs were seized by the government never to be seen again.

The second half of the film is about the local community rallying in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to save the site and buildings from developers and create a Tesla museum. This part is way too long and self-indulgent. The filmmaker and the community organizers and their ultimately successful Indigogo campaign go on and on in what really could have been told in a fraction of the time. I suspect that the filmmaker was putting people in the doc to say thanks for funding, but most of it doesn’t add to the story at all. For me the film raised a lot of unanswered questions. Like where did his research go and who has taken up where he left off? And was it all really a big conspiracy to keep the world from having free energy? This isn’t a film you need to see in a theater. Watch it when it comes to cable or your favorite streaming service, and feel free to switch it off once it gets to the second half. Then you’ll probably want to go to the library and read a book about Tesla. Fascinating man.

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