Relegated to Thomas Edison’s shadow, Nikola Tesla has experienced a recent resurgence in popular culture. First portrayed by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s deeply psychological mystery The Prestige, then Nicholas Hoult in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War—which recounted the bitter rivalry between Edison and Tesla—he now receives a richer and more idiosyncratic biographical treatment in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla.
A brilliant figure—who later morphed into a persona non grata due to his boisterous, outrageous claims of far-fetched inventions—in popular media, he’s often caped in an aura of mystery. In The Prestige, Bowie portrays him as an outcast. More a regretful sorcerer than a three-dimensional figure. The Current War cared far more for Edison. But Almereyda’s biopic Tesla—with Ethan Hawke as the unquiet inventor—refits the electricity pioneer with an enigmatic narrative that abstains from artifice.
Almereyda follows the subject from his first hopeful year in America, to his experimentations in Colorado, and his final broken days. Opening in Edison Machine Works, New York City: August 11, 1884, the immigrant Tesla arrived from Budapest with the big dream of learning from the inventing magnate. In an eerie scene, lit solely by candlelight, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) explains how he watched his friend George drown at the age of five. Perfectly summarizing his self-centered apathy he explains, “I assumed everybody could swim.” Set in the Victorian era, when seances were all the rage among the upper class, and science sometimes bordered the pseudo, death is a prominent topic among the characters, including Tesla himself, whose mourning of his mother makes him diffident towards love and companionship.
Between leaving Edison’s workshop, later becoming a ditch digger, and shooting to fame with his harnessing of AC current, Tesla meets Anne (Eve Hewson)—daughter of J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). The pair share an unrequited relationship. The reticent inventor ignores most of the bated signs from the sharp Anne, and instead pines for a coy Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). Hewson prevails as the sole steady beat in an unpredictable film.
Though Tesla is a brilliant man, when it comes to business—as evident in his dealings with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan)—he’s a novice. Living at the height of the Gilded Age, when Captains of Industry—or better known as exploitative monopolizers—rose to prominence, Anne understands this world better than the weary immigrant Tesla. It’s why Almereyda installs her character as the narrator.
Allowing for modern trinkets to sometimes intercede into the era’s period details—in one scene Edison heads to the bar to check his smartphone—Tesla reminds one of the recently released Madame Curie biopic Radioactive. Both films follow two scientists far ahead of their time, and go great lengths to demonstrate how their past successes now influence our contemporary world. Tesla accomplishes this feeling with better results through its subtly. No moment exists where dialogue highlights Edison’s smartphone, or the laptop Anne employs during her narrations. Instead, Almereyda shows these anachronisms without pretense. Thereby, allowing the audience to either suspend their disbelief or acknowledge the artifice.
The abstention from artifice continues whenever the film confesses its fibs. For instance, an early scene shows Tesla and Edison in an ice cream fight. Another presents the pair meeting at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair to bury the hatchet post their Current War. As narrator, Ann freezes frame to inform the viewer that these events never happened, and often provides a series of photographic montages to set the record straight. More than capricious storytelling, the scenes add a comedic tinge to the self-serious, psychological biopic. In fact, the period piece asks viewers to take the phrase “inspired by true events” to its logical conclusion.
Almereyda’s biopic doesn’t always run smoothly. The Current War between Edison and Tesla—which pitted the two between their DC and AC technologies—lacks intrigue. Rather the subplot borders on dull. A short-lived character Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach)—Tesla’s confidant from Budapest—holds no function in the narrative. And at some point, the immigrant inventor morphs into a germophobe by refusing to shake hands and by obsessive-compulsively wiping his restaurant silverware with his napkins. The behavioral change welcomes reminders of The Aviator, but without the physiological and emotional pull of watching a once-confident playboy turn unhinged. That is, Tesla’s heights are never as high as Howard Hughes, and never as low. Which subtracts from the effectiveness of portraying his decline.
Still, Almereyda’s use of fourth-wall breaks, his theatrical staging—Sean Price Williams’ photographing of painted backgrounds and obvious lighting effects to enliven the viewer’s eyes to the film’s formalism—and the ways he shows the correlation between self-promotion and historical posterity, is a uniqueness to be admired.
No risk is ever too great for the film, with its biggest coming from the inventor singing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Which exemplifies his manic drive. Hawke is game for all of this trickery. He emits a quiet resolve which oscillates between fitfully dispassionate yet intriguingly vulnerable, and externalizes the internalized insecurities of his character. Often surreal and ambitious, Almereyda’s Tesla relegates its subject as a mystery, telling us little beyond the history books; yet as a biopic that rebels against expectations and the need for acceptance, is pitched perfectly to the man
IFC’s Tesla is now available on VOD