'Newman': DOC NYC Review

Newman still - H 2015
Courtesy of DOCNYC.net
A very entertaining, very problematic doc.

Did he find a loophole in the laws of the universe?

"He could have changed the world," laments the tagline of Jon Fox's Newman, a film following up on the decades-old claims of a self-taught inventor who said he could solve the world's energy problems. Joe Newman is a thorny character by anyone's account, but some aspects of his case make one skeptical of those who would toss him on history's heap of crackpot inventors without a second thought. Unfortunately, while the first-time filmmaker spins his yarn with some panache, he's more interested in the story than the facts underlying it, offering little of the evidence or reporting we require to give the film our trust. Though the doc may generate some interest at fests, one suspects it would wither in the light of public scrutiny.

A bodybuilder who had made money on a new kind of barbell, Newman emerged in the late '70s with an invention he claimed could output more energy than it required to run. Since everyone knows a perpetual-motion machine is impossible, he was widely dismissed. But Fox interviews several reasonable-seeming men, some of them engineers, who saw the device and could not debunk its seemingly impossible results. Some volunteered to work with the inventor; some went on the record supporting his efforts to get a patent for "The Newman Device" so it could be developed commercially or at least exposed to wider scrutiny.

But the U.S. Patent Office rejected the request in ways that left it open to criticism, and legal wrangling over that decision gave further ammo to supporters who believed Newman was a genius being sabotaged by powerful forces. Unfortunately, aside from an interview that makes former Patent Office Commissioner Donald Quigg look like a know-nothing, we don't hear from anyone qualified to make the anti-Newman case. Nor do we hear support for the "Newman got a raw deal" narrative from anyone who wasn't directly involved at the time.

One interview with a respected science journalist or an Elon Musk-type would go a long way here, as would any kind of explanation of how the device allegedly worked. Instead we get drama revolving around eccentricity: After 50 minutes of talking about him as if he were dead, the film excitingly reveals him, traveling to the Texas home where he still insists he's sitting on the key to Earth's free-energy future. Looking like an aged Samson, Newman is clearly unhinged. (He died this past March, after alienating the filmmaker and most other supporters.) But Fox still acts as if it's only Newman's hot tempter and the world's obstinacy that keep his invention from being hailed. Could it not be, after three decades, that the thing just didn't live up to Newman's hype?

Production company: Our Turn Productions

Director:Jon Fox

Producers: Martin Guigui, Dahlia Waingort, Erica Kahn, Judy Bart, Jon Fox

Director of photography: Vasilios Sfinarolakis

Editor: Yasu Inoue

Music: Ched Tolliver

No rating, 80 minutes