His day job in the federal government led to the creation of a short film featuring Hollywood stars. This weekend, Maryland filmmaker José Ricardo García will screen the documentary at a Northeast D.C. theater.
“I never thought in a million years that in the federal government I would be doing this,” García, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, told WTOP.
“Originally, the assignment was to make a two-minute video to use for the onboarding process, because this is a story that is always told to new employees. I didn’t know that much about it, but when I started doing research, I said, ‘Holy crap, this is humongous. This story is huge.'”
Set in the early 1950s,the 23-minute documentary chronicles a salesman with a tantalizing product.
“This small entrepreneur came out into the marketplace with this product called AD-X2, a battery additive,” García said. “This is post-World War II, so he saw big business in prolonging the life of batteries. This product was tested by the National Bureau of Standards, now NIST, and they found that it did nothing. It didn’t work. It became a huge controversy that involved the higher echelons of government and got the director of the bureau fired.”
That man was Allen Astin, a physicist who led the bureau from 1951-1969. He also happens to be the father of actor John Astin (“West Side Story,” “The Addams Family,” “Freaky Friday”) and the adoptive grandfather of Sean Astin (“The Goonies,” “Rudy,” “The Lord of the Rings”). Both agreed to appear in the film for sit-down interviews.
“Everything happened organically,” García said. “John Astin and his brother Alexander Astin, may he rest in peace, came to NIST to do a colloquium about their point of view on this story. We were early in the research stage of prepping for this movie and we used that time to interview them … (Sean Astin) decided to come later. We spent a whole day with him, we did tours of the campus … It was an amazing experience working with the whole family.”
In addition to those stars, the film casts local actors for re-enactments, including Evan Casey as Allen Astin, Adam Cooley as Jess Ritchie and Joel Snyder as Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks. The Puerto Rican writer, director and editor cleverly breaks the fourth wall during the re-enactments, then the camera dollies past walls to transition between labs.
“I’m a firm believer that limitations are good and they guide creativity,” García said. “Because the story takes place so long ago, we didn’t have enough visuals … I felt it was crucial that the audience relates to the characters and I thought the best way to do it was through re-enactments … All the dialogue that you hear from the three main characters is exactly word by word what they said … We were very careful to not change history here.”
In the end, he hopes audiences walk away contemplating the film’s profound themes.
“Scientific integrity is the main theme,” García said. “There’s a difference between opinions and facts. Just because you think something works doesn’t mean it works. In science, we have the scientific method. Science is always evolving, but it’s the best way that we have right now to find truth. If you set up the right experiment with a variable and a constant, then somebody else can duplicate it and reach the same results. Now you have a fact.”