It seems that in the past five to ten years Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla has been slowly creeping into American consciousness, no doubt in great part due to a sudden burst of TV documentaries (Modern Marvels, PBS, et. al.); film, TV and video game cameos (The Prestige, Sanctuary, Dark Void, respectively); a certain electric car company and a little thing you’re using right now called wireless communication. Yet, outside of tech geeks, history buffs and nerds in general few have heard of the name.
That needs to change.
Helping the cause is filmmaker Joseph Sikorski with his movie Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues, a long overdue theatrical documentary that is the most comprehensive account of Tesla’s work projected to screen yet. Despite its History Channel feel – complete with silent re-enactments, computer-generated images and a narrator with a properly British accent – Tower to the People is an in-depth look into the work of Nikola Tesla that inevitably (and invariably) ends up as a peripheral history lesson of his competitors and colleagues, all of whom benefited greatly from Tesla’s life work.
A man robbed of history, Nikola Tesla is now mostly known as the inventor whose re-design of the alternating current (AC) is still in use today. Your electrical devices are essentially powered by his contribution, the modern AC induction motor. Yet, because we as Americans live in an “Edison-centric” world, to quote one of the many relatively unknown but knowledgeable talking heads in the doc, Tesla doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Instead, names like Edison, Marconi and Westinghouse still bask in his innovations.
His infamy, on the other hand, is cemented by the numerous pictures of him surrounded by his artificial lightning bolts emanating from his famous coils. Like a Victor Frankenstein, that fictional modern Prometheus, Tesla is oftentimes assigned the title of “mad scientist,” a man whose words and creations mystified and amused, if not downright terrified, general audiences. His proposal of a “World Wireless System” (his term) of telecommunications and electrical power delivered through the Earth’s atmosphere was not only prophetic back in the 1890s, but now seems like a foregone conclusion in our technological advancement.
In true chronicler/promoter, almost didactic fashion, director Sikorski aims to set the record straight. His documentary is straightforward, chronicling Tesla’s major scientific achievements and setbacks, from early on in his career working with Edison to his final days at the Waldorf-Astoria with a $20K bill in back rent and only a deed to a failed laboratory in his name. (At the height of his success, Tesla had the world-class hotel send him his favorite lunch by train daily to his lab in Long Island.) But to list Tesla’s many triumphs, trials and tribulations in this space is to provide spoilers for a re-calibrated history, one that involves events as seemingly unrelated as the success of the telegraph and the sinking of the Titanic, both part of a byzantine narrative in Tesla’s professional and personal life; Or the naming of Radio City Music Hall, a petty act of creative thievery too coincidental to be overlooked, yet too insignificant for a genius like Tesla to bother with.
That’s the ultimate takeaway from both Sikorski’s meat-and-potatoes doc and Tesla’s wonderful, fascinating, tragic life. Like a story ripe for Hollywood to exploit ad infinitum, Tesla’s unfathomable genius left no room for thinking of practicalities like securing rights or hiring lawyers to write up contracts in his favor. While he was, as Peabody award-winning author Jack Hitt poetically puts it in the doc, “Harnessing the magic of nature,” his competitors and detractors meanwhile were “pirating his patents” or exploiting his inventions without compensating their creator. And that’s where both the documentary and this write-up should have ended. But as a different sort of didactic chronicler and promoter of films, a film reviewer would be remiss to not mention the bad with the good. And the ugly.
It’s one thing for Tower to the People to have a basic cable channel feel to it. It’s something else, however, to feel like you’ve been suckered into a final segment that feels like a late-night infomercial. After we’re done learning about Tesla’s life and work, we hear about the noble attempt by a local science organization to re-build and reclaim Tesla’s final laboratory at Wardenclyffe, Long Island. It’s at this point that director Sikorski conveniently intertwines his own narrative about how his “award-winning” screenplay, Fragments of Olympus, based on the life of Nikola Tesla, has been a motivator in getting the project done. We also hear about his last minute donation of $33K that helped a crowdfounding campaign reach its goal for buying the property at Wardenclyffe.
There’s no denying that there’s some poetic justice in learning about how an internet practice such as crowdfounding helped restore Wardenclyffe laboratory, which was originally built by a man who, as Hitt again wonderfully explains, “spent his life chasing one funder after another because that’s how you did it in 1900.” So, one hundred years after abandoning Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s old lab gets some financial help from a wireless world wide web he practically predicted. Cool! But like Tower to the People‘s long, unnecessary, clunky, self-serving and seemingly tacked-on subtitle, there’s a fine line between documenting for the sake of educating and informing for the sake of self-advertising.
Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues opens for a week-long run this Friday, October 23rd, at the Crest Westwood Theatre in Los Angeles. Director Joseph Sikorski will be doing a Q&A following the 8PM shows on Friday, October 23rd, and Saturday, October 24th.
An important message from the filmmakers regarding a free additional show for school groups:
“To help raise awareness of Nikola Tesla and his Wardenclyffe lab throughout the educational system, there will be a special day-time screening on Thursday, October 29th, at 1:00pm for school groups. Admission will be free for organized classes and grade levels that would like to attend. If you are a principal, teacher or administrator in the Los Angeles area that would like your students to learn about this important part of history, please contact Linda Lee at: email@example.com to make reservations/arrangements. Grades 9th through 12th are recommended. Please be advised seating capacity is limited for this special screening, so if you are interested, it is recommended that you respond quickly.”