Post-modern filmmaker Michael Almereyda has been experimenting with form, de-construction, and mixed media in his works since the beginning of his career in 1985. It’s no wonder that he was drawn to the subject of Nikola Tesla, the 19th-century inventor who forged new ways to harness electrical currents and push the connectivity of the world exponentially in doing so. Commonalities amongst the two include a passion for experimentation, a rejection of societal norms, and a need to find the balance between art and commerce. In Almereyda’s new biopic TESLA, the two idealists come together for a highly unusual telling of the maverick’s life. The filmmaker’s take on the man is not wholly successful, but you have to hand it to Almereyda, his movie has its own weird energy.
Tesla has become a popular figure as of late, what with a car named for him, his legacy being revisited in books, TV specials, and more, let alone being a character in some major films. David Bowie played Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film THE PRESTIGE, but here, the role is rendered by Almereyda favorite Ethan Hawke. (Hawke essayed the title character of HAMLET in a modern-dress film done by Almereyda in 2000.)
One of Hawke’s greatest strengths as an actor has been in how well he reacts to events onscreen, particularly in films like FIRST REFORMED and SINISTER. As Tesla, he’s playing a similarly reactive character, watching and studying all things at all times, barely blinking in his fascination with them. He stares at everything- his experiments as they spool out, his affectionate black kitty, and especially, the strange assortment of rivals, benefactors, and celebrities crossing his path and getting in the way of his work.
The film is about energy, yes, but in many ways, it’s about how Tesla’s energy is constantly distracted from his work by all the eccentrics in his orbit. As he struggles to get through almost every human interaction with extroverted, blustery characters, Hawke’s Tesla sweats and furrows in abject desperation. He’s a man who may be fastidious and dapper in dress, but deep down inside, he’s unraveling.
An introspective thinker like Tesla wanted his work to speak for itself, but in this film, he constantly has to justify all that he’s doing to his peers and benefactors. He becomes more and more tongue-tied and despondent as the story progresses. Why, the poor scientist can barely manage the words to converse with boisterous chatterbox George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), pompous J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), or the seductive Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan).
Tesla starts to become a recessive character in the film, and at times, he verges on becoming a black hole. When he interacts with his rival, the vainglorious Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), Tesla is a virtual mute, verklempt by his superior’s hubris. Tesla worked for Edison for just six months after emigrating to America in 1884, but his rival’s actions and attitude stuck in his craw for decades. In many ways, the film could have just been about their ongoing competitiveness, especially since MacLachlan brightens up the screen every time his Edison enters, but clearly Almereyda wanted to showcase all of the obstacles in Tesla’s way. Still, when MacLachlan is off-screen, the film sags considerably.
That must be why Almereyda juices things up the way he does throughout the film, mixing in all kinds of schtick including rap music, ‘TED Talk’ tableaus with characters standing in front of modern presentation screens, and narrator Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) breaking the fourth wall to share facts about Tesla. J.P’s daughter even invites us to verify her data on Google, a running gag that may be too clever for its own good.
Additional odd choices by the director include having Tesla and his friends rollerskate through one scene, or showcasing Hawke warble the song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” while in character late in the film. Do these bits complement the idea of Tesla’s experimental persona? You bet. Do they seem especially jarring though given the exacting Victorian production design on screen? Indeed.
Like all period pieces, this film comments upon our modern world as well. Tesla realizes all too late just how beholden he is to his investment-minded benefactors who want a healthy ROI. It’s a hard truth that every visionary must confront when seeking financing, be they an inventor or filmmaker, and I’m sure it’s a lesson that sticks in Almereyda’s craw daily. But, as the saying goes, “They don’t call it ‘show business’ for nothing.”