The proliferation of increasingly inexpensive, powerful, and accessible technology has had as much — and by all intents, far more — of an impact on American industry as it has had on American filmmaking. Any forward-thinking, creative individual with a knack for tinkering can take the leap and launch a business, the same as anyone with an idea for a film can pick up a camera (or even a cell phone these days) and make a movie. So often entrepreneurs in either venture stumble, failing to find consumers or proving unable to turn their idea into a successful product. Neither is the case in “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” a new documentary that examines the financially lucrative Taser gun (used ubiquitously by law enforcement agencies), fascinatingly written and directed by rookie director Nick Berardini.
The documentary opens (quite wisely — it sets the tone rapidly by being nearly too difficult to watch) with footage from an early Taser test conducted by the device’s inventor, Jack Cover. In the homemade recording, Cover tries the weapon out on unsuspecting bison. (And yes, throughout Berardini’s film, proprietors of the Taser refer to it as a weapon, despite its supposedly nonlethal nature.) The animals, massive creatures weighing in at hundreds of pounds, crumple to the ground instantly as the electricity courses through their bodies. Cover and his assistant, neither of whom appear on camera, repeatedly shock the beasts, letting them stand up and move out of the shade, before dropping them again. It’s a harsh image, an early, immediate indication of the power these Tasers wield, of how “harmless” they are.
Years later, brothers Patrick (“Rick”) and Tom Smith buy the rights to the Taser from Cover and begin to produce a nonlethal alternative to firearms. (Rick lost two friends to firearms in a road rage incident and wanted to enact positive change as a result.) The brothers found TASER International, the only company that manufactures the electrical firearm. After years of struggle, their business grows into the mega-corporation it is today. With distribution in over 100 countries, serving over 16,000 police departments and a reported 2.5 million plus deployments, they boast incredible stats and even more impressive sales.
Naturally, success does not last unimpeded forever. Berardini’s investigation progresses commendably organically from TASER International’s initial boom and the widespread early adoption of the devices by police worldwide to increasing reports of Taser-related injuries and fatalities. What first hit the market as a safe, life-saving alternative to deadly force soon came under question, as myriad publicized cases detailed individuals who died after receiving a Taser shock. As with the bison test subjects, Berardini doesn’t shy away from including footage — most often from either police dash cams, security cameras, or cell phones — that depicts deadly Taser deployments. In each instance, the cops zap a belligerent male, sometimes as a first response. Though the duration of the stun and number of times shot differ, the result is too often the same: Death.
Berardini turns to medical experts and lawyers on both sides of the debate in his examination of whether Tasers are truly at fault. Had TASER International brass been aware of adverse effects of multiple, long-lasting Taser shocks on the body? Was there sufficient science approving the device’s safety claims before it hit the market? The Smiths (who only appear via archival interviews and footage) claim most fatalities would have occurred regardless of Taser use. Steve Tuttle, a VP at TASER International, and the only ranking company employee who appears on camera, defends his product repeatedly, even as Berardini increasingly starts to paint Tuttle, the Smiths, and TASER International as concerned with profit first, and safety second. The portrayal, however, isn’t entirely fair, though it is undeniably complicated. The Smiths’ original goal — to save lives — did succeed. It’s also true, though, that they almost undoubtedly knew more about their products’ potential for great harm than they let on, and Berardini allows them their voice through Tuttle. Still, many of the police interviewed in the film are firsthand proof of the lives saved by the Taser, which spared cops and suspects alike from the recoil of a gun.
In the light of current public relations with American police following an ever-growing number of fatal shootings (often of unarmed suspects), and despite the Taser-linked deaths highlighted in the documentary, one still has to wonder how many lives have been spared by use of the Taser instead of the handgun. What if police in Ferguson or Cleveland or South Carolina had deployed their Tasers instead? Would the nation still be in the throes of the dialogue it’s mired in now? Though Berardini doesn’t address recent headline-grabbing shootings (he’s wise enough as a filmmaker to know the induction of such arguments would easily complicate matters at best, and come across as capitalizing or gratuitous at worst), the timeliness of his film couldn’t be more pertinent. There’s a revolution in policing brewing, one that Tasers have been a public part of for at least a decade. The technology is yet another cog in the creaky machine of policing, a reminder that even the best intentions on the part of officers can have dire ramifications.
“Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” (which shares its title with the 1911 pulp novel that inspired Cover to invent the TASER—aka Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle) is a deeply intriguing look into a contentious invention that has had both greatly positive and tragically negative effects on modern policing. Berardini’s film follows a narrative trajectory impressive in any documentary, let alone one by a rookie filmmaker. The debut effort is commendable, both for its handling of a complex issue, as well as for its engagement factor. Though at times not for the fainthearted, “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” takes subject matter many of us probably give little thought to at all in day to day life and asks us to consider it deeply, to ponder the value of life and the role of the contemporary police officer. It’s an impressive directorial debut from a novice filmmaker worth following. [B+]