‘American Experience: Tesla’ Headlines Titles Coming to PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel in August

American Experience: Tesla, The Botany of Desire and Doc World: Cocaine Prison headline the titles coming to the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel in August.

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Due Aug. 6 is American Experience: Tesla. The documentary chronicles the life and influence of Nikola Tesla, dubbed the “patron saint of geeks.” Tesla has had electric cars, rock bands, a unit of measurement, a minor planet, and a lunar crater named after him. Still eclipsed however by contemporaries such as Edison and Marconi, Tesla, the visionary scientist died impoverished and largely forgotten. During his lifetime, he gained international fame for his invention of a system of alternating current that made possible the distribution of electricity over vast distances and is the basis for the electrical grid that powers 21st century life. But the visionary Tesla imagined much more — robots, radio, radar, remote control, the wireless transmission of messages and pictures, and harnessing the wind and sun to provide free energy to all. As a showman, he dazzled his scientific peers who flocked to see him demonstrate his inventions and send thousands of volts of electricity pulsing through his body. His fertile, yet undisciplined imagination was the source of his genius and also his downfall, as the image of Tesla as a “mad scientist” came to overshadow his reputation as a brilliant innovator. It is his exhilarating sense of the future that has inspired renewed interest in the man, as his once scoffed-at vision of a world connected by wireless technology has become a reality.

Doc World: Cocaine Prison, coming Aug. 15, follows the lives of three Bolivians who work at the lowest levels of the cocaine trade: two prison inmates who film their daily experiences and an inmate’s sister who must decide whether to traffic cocaine or pursue a college education. The film bridges the ever-widening gap between the North and the South and brings a new perspective to the war on drugs being waged in the Andes.

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The Botany of Desire

Based on Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, The Botany of Desire, brought to life through narration by Frances McDormand, is coming Aug. 27. The film focuses on four species of plants that we’ve all interacted with and details how humans have completely shaped these plants’ evolutions and destinies. The documentary takes viewers on an eye-opening exploration of the human relationship with the plant world — seen from the plants’ point of view. The program shows how four familiar species ─ the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato ─ evolved to satisfy our yearnings for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control. The Botany of Desire shows how human desires are an essential, intricate part of natural history. It begins in Michael Pollan’s garden, and then roams the world from the corn fields of Iowa to the apple forests of Kazakhstan, from a medical marijuana hot house to the tulip markets of Amsterdam. One of the great conceits of human civilization is to put ourselves outside nature — constantly shaping and re-shaping the wild for our own purposes. Taking the plants’ view of the world pushes viewers to understand Pollan’s call to restore human activity to its proper place in the matrix of nature.

The Current War: Director’s Cut

DIGITAL REVIEW: 

Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $5.98 million;
$22.98 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some violent content and thematic elements.
Stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen, Stanley Townsend, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War tells the story of something we take for granted so much nowadays it would be nearly impossible to imagine life without it — the installation of electrical systems to power society.

The story takes place in the 1880s and 1890s, with arrogant inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) locked in a contest to deliver electricity to America’s cities.

Edison pushes the direct current (DC) system, which requires a new power plant every mile or so. Westinghouse champions alternating current (AC), which can more efficiently transmit power over farther distances with fewer plants, but the technology is unproven.

The ruthless Edison even engages in a PR war, claiming Westinghouse’s AC is too dangerous to be used around populations. He goes so far as to arrange a demonstration of how AC could electrocute animals, prompting the government to ask Edison to create an electric chair to execute death row inmates as a “humane” alternative to hanging.

Westinghouse enlists the aid of futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), the eccentric Serbian whose ideas were rejected by Edison but who may have conceived the breakthrough in constructing a generator capable of powering both lights and machines, when previous AC systems could only turn on the lights (putting AC at a disadvantage to DC from the standpoint of industry).

The Current War is a fascinating retelling of one of the great rivalries of the industrial revolution, marked by engaging performances from Cumberbatch and Shannon as the two men to dream of lighting America’s skies at night.

The story’s focus is more on the personalities of the men involved, rather than getting bogged down in the technical details. For example, there’s no scene that succinctly explains the differences between DC and AC systems, leaving that to inferences and implications spread throughout the film in scenes where discussions of such things warrant it.

What that leaves is an ode to innovation and inventiveness, and the fighting spirit that fueled the men who were inspired to bring the world into the future.

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The reason the film has been draped with the “director’s cut” label is almost as interesting a story.

Gomez-Rejon’s original cut played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, though he admits it was rushed to meet the deadline and he wasn’t happy with the result. The film was going to be released theatrically by The Weinstein Company, but those plans fell through in light of the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Contractual obligations regarding the TWC bankruptcy and the sale of its assets prevented Gomez-Rejon from adjusting the film to better meet his vision.

When the film’s new rights-holder emerged in 2019, Gomez-Rejon was able to convince executive producer Martin Scorsese to exercise a clause in his contract that gave Scorsese final cut approval, and Scorsese let Gomez-Rejon make the changes he wanted to make, trimming some scenes and adding others through reshoots. He also got rid of expositional title cards that explained what the stakes were but made the film feel too much like a documentary.

Gomez-Rejon discusses some of this process in his solo commentary for the film, in which he points out where some of the changes took place and how they resulted in a more satisfying film.

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The film’s home video edition also includes three interesting deleted scenes that run about five-and-a-half minutes in total.

While the film will play on any number of platforms, including Vudu or FandangoNow, thanks to Movies Anywhere, the bonus content is accessible through Apple TV (iTunes), as well as disc.