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In the world of telecommunications, Walter Shaw was probably the most important inventor after Alexander Graham Bell. A Bell Telephone lineman turned engineer who eventually had 39 patents to his credit — among them call forwarding, conference calling, touch-tone dialing and the voice-activated speakerphone — he died penniless and forgotten.
With the documentary Genius on Hold, opening in limited release, director Gregory Marquette unearths a story so intensely emblematic of American corporatism that its significance is self-evident. Shaw’s experiences speak loud and clear about the devastating greed of monopolies and the hypocrisy of elected officials who do their bidding. But the filmmaker’s breathless attempts to connect the big-picture dots lard the film with information overload, making for a numbingly dull first half. That’s a shame, given the importance of the events he describes.
Delivered nearly nonstop by Frank Langella — who in the first 30 minutes surely utters more lines than he’d have in a feature-film leading role — the overwritten narration is as jam-packed with factoids as a freshman term paper. Marquette’s outrage is understandable; his pacing is not.
Once the film has laid down its clumsy lessons in political history, the extraordinary trajectory of Shaw’s derailed career kicks into focus. Through archival material and new interviews with Shaw’s daughter and long-estranged son (who produced the doc), Marquette builds the tragic narrative of mid-century optimism on a crash course with very big business.
After Shaw’s innovative knack became clear to his corporate bosses at Bell Laboratories, they offered to kick him upstairs from the R&D department while reaping all the benefits of his inventions. Betting that an antitrust suit against the government-sanctioned monopoly would clear the way for him to pursue his work elsewhere, Shaw resigned, only to find AT&T prevailing in the lawsuit.
The company’s iron grip on the country’s telephone lines prohibited him from developing any of his inventions, which would have been deemed “unauthorized attachments” to the existing system. Eventually the only place Shaw could put his technical know-how to work was for the Mafia, developing the black box that enabled mob bookmakers to evade wiretaps. After it all came crashing down on him — via televised congressional hearings, no less — the Shaw family saga took yet another astounding turn, with son Walter T. Shaw, aka Thiel, embarking on his own life of crime.
Academics weigh in on the unbridled might of AT&T, while people who knew Shaw provide glimpses of his despair and bitterness as well as his vision. His daughter, Linda Honey, recalls the poverty the family faced when he couldn’t find work. If a truly vivid picture of him never emerges, he’s a potent symbol of what industry can wreak.
However messily structured — Marquette returns to overarching lecture mode in the film’s ineffective closing sequences — Genius on Hold is the stuff of a great novel, the story of a would-be David denied his slingshot.
Opens: March 1 (Freestyle Releasing)
Production company: Top Cat Prods.
Narrator: Frank Langella
Director: Gregory Marquette
Screenwriter: Gregory Marquette
Producer: Walter T. Shaw
Executive producers: Mitchell Schultz, Jon Schultz
Director of photography: Rick Siegel
Music: Daniel Coe, Jack Douglas
Editor: Matthew Reber
MPAA rating: PG; 91 minutes
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