Information overload and an overeager desire to associate its story with more recent economic developments are the only things that hamper Genius on Hold, an otherwise gripping documentary portrait of Walter Shaw, whose gift for telecommunications inventions puts him, in post-WWII Florida, squarely at odds with Bell Telephone. Narrated by Frank Langella, Gregory Marquette’s doc begins with a torrent of talk about corporate responsibility and morality, the 1927 stock market crash, and the country’s more recent banking crisis, all stage-setting material that immediately weighs the proceedings down in far too much contextual content. Fortunately, that introduction eventually gives way to the individual tale of Shaw, a man with an unparalleled skill at phone-technology innovation, which employer Bell viewed as such a threat that—after unsuccessfully attempting to reign him in by offering promotions in return for ownership of his patents and devices, including a revolutionary speakerphone—they spent decades blacklisting him. Denied an ability to work by the monopolistic phone giant’s vindictive behavior, Shaw eventually fell in with the New York mafia, creating a “black box” that allowed bookkeepers to operate without police detection, a turn of events that would result in infamy and imprisonment, as well as alienate him from son Thiel.
If Shaw’s tale isn’t, on its own, heartbreaking enough, it achieves such a distinction by the decision of adult Thiel—angry at his father for lying to him, and for refusing to strike back at the corporate forces that ruined him—to join the mafia and become a jewel thief. The destruction of the father and disreputable fate of the son gives Genius on Hold a tragic dimension that isn’t diminished even by Marquette’s habit of piling on more facts and details (and accompanying graphics and text) than is necessary. Though overstuffed, his film eschews pop-doc conventions by opting for in-depth analysis over superficiality, at least until a finale in which Ma Bell’s crimes against Walter (and other likeminded pioneers) are clumsily linked with recent Wall Street malfeasance while Langella references Halliburton and then quotes, at length, Churchill over optimistic photos of Obama and people draped in the American flag. Still, if the film’s efforts at contextualization go a bit too far, its exhaustive dissection of Walter’s story—and the way in which it dovetailed with the development and dismantling of Bell’s monopoly—proves a riveting snapshot of the destructive individual consequences of government-big business collusion.