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“If I’m a genius, then I’m the slowest, dumbest genius you’ll ever meet.” Despite a vast career that’s ranged from creating revolutionary medical equipment to inventing The Segway, entrepreneur Dean Kamen has never seen himself as a scientific savant in the mold of Albert Einstein or Galileo. Instead, he attributes his successes to unadulterated hard work, persistence and purpose, virtues instilled by supportive parents and motivated siblings. If the above quote is any indication, he views his own public image in a self-deprecating manner.
SlingShot, the informative yet didactic new documentary about Kamen’s decade-long quest to distribute a mobile purification unit that could help solve the world’s water crisis, makes it clear that this is a man who deeply respects time as a finite entity. Each passing second carries the weight of millions across the globe who go each day without the basic hydration needed for survival. Kamen seems to take their plight personally in ways most people don’t. It’s refreshing (and slightly exhausting) to see a professional view the world with such an acute sense of haste.
Much of SlingShot’s style is informed by Kamen’s heightened work ethic and perseverant persona. A self-made millionaire who long ago decided against having children, he is wholly dedicated to enhancing the influence of science and engineering in young people while also making strides toward solving big-picture problems like the water crisis. At times, Kamen seems machine-like in his incessant attention to work, as if he’d given up paying attention to anything else long ago.
The way Kamen seemingly disappears into his work stands at odds with the film’s treatment of him as a subject. SlingShot often veers toward hero worship posing as non-fiction, celebrating Kamen at every turn through rousing musical cues and dramatic monologues that portray him as a leader in the fight for America’s cultural soul. At first, his diatribes against art and entertainment suggest he’s a passionate advocate for ostensibly more substantial endeavors. Yet director Paul Lazarus indulges Kamen a bit too much, letting him paint a picture that would suggest science and art are opposing forces.
While visually muted, even banal, the film serviceably charts Kamen’s multi-year journey developing his water vapor compression distiller (which the film’s title is named after) and attempting to forge a distribution plan with the Coca Cola Bottling Company. At this point in SlingShot, Kamen admits that he doesn’t care about the corporation’s long history of malfeasance in countries such as India, instead choosing to see the soft drink company as a messiah in his crusade to solve “50% of all human diseases” thanks to his clean water project. This “whatever it takes” mentality grows increasingly problematic.
What’s missing from SlingShot is any sense of Kamen beyond the façade he puts on for the multiple talking heads interviews and B-roll. In nearly every shot, it seems like he’s performing for the camera, cracking jokes with the crew and even using his hands to mimic the clapper tasked with syncing up the sound. Moments like these reveal a man who has sacrificed social interaction and experiences for a life keenly focused on his own passions and obsessions. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t make Kamen out to be a reclusive type but rather someone aching for time spent with other human beings.
In this sense, SlingShot becomes a portrait of an American wunderkind willfully out of touch with what his country deems important. And for that Kamen remains an essential voice for those hoping to push past the artifice of our modern-day culture and grasp at something tangible and daring. Lazarus’ film might not be all that engaging as a piece of cinema, but it’s a worthy examination of a classic scientist trying to make strides for the human race while living in a post-modern world that doesn’t always care.
Production companies: White Dwarf Productions
Starring: Dean Kamen
Director: Paul Lazarus
Producers: Douglas Bush, Lewis Katz, Paul Lazarus, Barry Opper
Cinematographer: Sam Henriques, Phillip Hurn, Michael Sacca, Logan Schneider, David Wright
Editors: Douglas Bush, Paul Lazarus, Dirk Meenen, Edward Osei-Gyimah
Music: Marco D’Ambrosio
NR, 93 minutes
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