After premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, director Michael Almereyda’s (Marjorie Prime) experimental biopic Tesla is coming available to audiences. Much like the titular man, Almereyda’s film possesses idiosyncrasies as it mashes together a steam punk vibe, chronological anomalies, frequent uses of a staged setting, amid a terse narrative requiring the audience to be more familiar with its subject matter than you’d expect. In short, it’s a wild experiment whose vision often exceeds its means. Put in the words of the film itself, Almereyda’s Tesla attempts to eat something larger than his head.
For the unfamiliar, Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) is an immigrant inventor whose alternating current (AC) motor produced more power, far more safely, than Thomas Edison’s (Kyle MacLachlan) direct current (DC) system. Though the American Dream is of pulling ones-self up by their boot straps, what it does not caution is how the capitalist system rooted deeply within the country swallows naïve altruists whole. Almereyda’s film reimagines Tesla’s life through the eyes of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), who recounts the events of Tesla’s life leading up to, during, and after the current war involving Edison, George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and her father, famed investor John Pierpoint Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz).
There are a two specific moments in Tesla which tell you exactly why the film is hard to pin down in terms of tone and style. The first comes early on as a conversation between Tesla and Edison is depicted with the two men jabbing their respective ice cream cones at each other. It’s a silly moment and the tonal outrageousness is undercut by our narrator, Anne, telling us via freeze frame that the conversation did not occur like this at all. It’s meant to be irreverent, a moment given to the audience which declares that Tesla will be unlike any biopic audiences have seen before. Before this moment, the film has already displayed several odd cuts, making scenes feel like vignettes rather than connected moments — a trend which carries throughout Tesla to increasing frustration — and the audience has been treated to shifts in staging wherein the actors visibly transition from a set to a stage play scene. These aspects already tell the audience that Tesla will be different, melding one style of performance with another in an overlapping melody. Unfortunately, the melody is discordant as the moment with the ice cream plays as utterly unnecessary other than being cheeky. Later, however, the audience watches as Edison, post-1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where he and Tesla presented their machinery, pulls out and scrolls through a cell phone as Anne, filled with melancholy, tells the audience the experience is another “didn’t happen moment.” Unlike the ice cream’s flamboyance, the moment with Edison on the cell phone is not so much bizarre as it is a quiet, almost solemn moment hinting at what the world might be had Tesla’s inventions not been buried by better public relations, better capitalists, and better business men than him. Moments like this one, few within the film, help to underscore why Tesla should be better known in modern circles. Enabling the audience to join Anne’s obvious gloom, sharing in her displeasure at history’s forgetful nature and consumers’ flitting favoritism. Even in the late 1890s, Tesla had designs to offer free energy to the masses and technology that would enable immediate transcontinental communication. Some have theorized that by supporting Tesla’s machines, we’d be driving flying cars by now and, while neat in concept, one thing we do know is we’re not as advanced as we might have been if Tesla’s work had not been buried.
The other big shame of the film (and this may have more to do with the reclusive Tesla), is how little of the story is told by Tesla versus those around him. Hawke nails the expression of internal conflict, the constant struggle between wanting to create and finding the measure, and who to trust, who will help him do so. This, as presented by Hawke and Almereyda, creates a more withdrawn Tesla, forcing the bulk of information to be delivered either by Anne as narrator, Anne as the character, or the rest of the cast. In this way, much of Tesla seems to swirl around the man, unable or unwilling to get his perspective on events. The two times in the film where Tesla does open up are so radically different from the rest of the film that one borders on fever dream and the other on narrative non-sequitur, even if sub-textually accurate. For their parts, Hewson, Keshawarz, and Gaffigan are strong stand-outs and, while MacLachlan is always a fun watch, this reviewer can’t help but wonder if the performer would’ve been better served trading with Keshawarz as their energies seem almost mismatched for their characters.
The reason for describing Tesla as a “shame” is that there is clearly an interesting idea within the film to create an eccentric production to tell the story of one of science’s most eccentric creators. On this, it mostly succeeds, using interesting combinations of sets and staging to make the whole of Tesla seem otherworldly, as though the audience is experiencing a lucid dream instead of a film. But the manner in which the film is structured, the way it doles out information on Tesla as suits the scene and remaining consistently unbeholden to educating the less informed about Nikola Tesla, makes the totality of Tesla increasingly frustrating. Will you leave the film knowing more about the man than before? Perhaps. But the things you don’t know, the things which Tesla does not explore beyond brief mention or presumed understanding, will leave the audience frustrated and, sadly, confounded. Tesla’s imagination sought to bring wireless communications to the world back when the mere concept of electricity was still being argued over in the halls of commerce and government. He deserves a film which tells his story with more than the spirit of the man.
In select theaters and on VOD August 21st, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Tesla website.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.