Review: Tesla

Michael Almereyda’s biopic of Serbian-American inventor Nikolai Tesla (Ethan Hawke) is a welcome corrective — or maybe “antidote” is a better word — to The Current War, which attempted to make an entertainment out of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the future of the electrification of the U.S. Tesla was a marginal character in that movie, essentially an idea-rich shuttlecock batted back-and-forth between the two powerful men. The movie, however, could never find a satisfying common ground between science porn and personal tragedy (both principals had their traumatic back stories), and as a result it descended into self-important muddle. 

Tesla, in fact, is less of a biopic than a moody meditation on the nexus of ego and genius, especially as it was applied to that period in Western civilization when technology had at last conquered the world, or, at least, the common imagination. Both Almereyda and Hawke portray Tesla as a stone professional. There’s none of the psychological probing that marred The Current War, and yet the man comes across as almost punishingly complex in both his approach to science and his misunderstanding of capitalism. The movie doesn’t attempt to explain Tesla but rather revels in his mystery. He was religiously devoted to the applications of alternating current. An early scene has Tesla meeting with an extremely hard-assed Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), who dismisses the young immigrant’s thesis (Edison calls him a “Transylvanian”) about AC, which he considers “a waste of time.” At that point, Tesla had already given up on the great inventor, and takes his idea elsewhere. This view of Tesla, as a studious iconoclast who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, even those as successful as Thomas Edison, becomes the movie’s theme, and Almereyda uses it to probe a kind of alternative history of the time and of the man’s life, which ended in poverty and ignominy. 

Almereyda’s device is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), at one time Tesla’s lover and the daughter of J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), maybe the richest man alive at the time. Anne is the film’s narrator, but she has access to our 21st century view of Tesla as more than just a name for an electric car. She wonders why Google searches for Edison outstrip those for Tesla by several degrees when Tesla was so obviously the greater mind. After all, the technology we take for granted today has probably as much to do with Tesla’s AC developments as anything Edison invented, but she reasons that Tesla was, by dint of his dour personality, unknowable. 

Almereyda also dispenses with normal biopic narrative development, pinning the script to thematic elements rather than temporal ones. All the greatest hits are here: the Chicago Exposition of 1893 when Edison and Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), to whom Tesla was now allied, squared off to decide who would control the circuit breakers; the invention of the Tesla coil; the fortuitous connection with the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan); the adaptation of the new technology in the service of capital punishment. All these episodes happened, but Anne points out they probably didn’t happen the way they are depicted. By confounding the tenets of biography and contaminating the whole process with Brechtian touches, such as musical interludes and purposely anachronistic dialogue (“you live too much in your head”), Almereyda attempts to interrogate Tesla’s influence on the culture that came after him while showing how his stubborn adherence to real science eventually relegated him to digging ditches after he was swindled by investors and then died, unknown and heirless. Almereyda’s vision has been derided for its reliance on surrealism, but given Tesla’s bizarre life, it seems the only way to address it. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Tesla home page in Japanese

photo (c) Nikola Productions, Inc. 2020

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