All movie genres have their conventions and biopics are no different. So many biographies are bound by certain self-imposed responsibilities and constraints that often strip them of their own style and flavor. They follow familiar paths, hitting familiar beats, and ultimately reaching familiar results. But as quick as I say that, along comes Michael Almereyda’s “Tesla” to give the biopic ‘genre’ a swift kick in the pants.
Almereyda’s fresh, quirky, and utterly fascinating foray into the life of Nikola Tesla fully embraces the mystery behind the brilliant engineer, inventor, and futurist. With style aplenty and even more audacity, Almereyda kicks aside nearly every biopic convention, crafting a biography based as much on feeling and intimation as strict history. For example Almereyda doesn’t mind showing you a scene only to stop it and tell you it never actually happened. He doesn’t do it as a stunt, but as a way of exploring the enigmatic Tesla from unique points of view.
What better fit for the film’s peculiar rhythm than Ethan Hawke. The often underrated actor plays Tesla as a man out of time, someone so forward thinking that he struggles to connect with the present. A man essentially held captive by his own genius. “Sometimes it seems as though all I do is think.” Tesla solemnly explains. “For days and weeks on end. Like my brain is burning. Who can live with that?” Hawke doesn’t give us a starry-eyed dreamer. Instead his Tesla exists in a perpetual state of awkward intensity; so confident in his brilliant theories yet too melancholic and soft-spoken to convince anyone other than himself.
Not afraid to color outside the lines, Almereyda mixes facts with speculation to paint ￼an abstract portrait of a man often overlooked in conversations over what became known as The Current War. Enter Anne Morgan (a really good Eve Hewson), daughter of financier and banking giant J.P. Morgan (played in the film by Donnie Keshawarz). Anne serves as our narrator and semi-historical tour guide through the life of Nikola Tesla. She also brings a shrewd female perspective to the testosterone-rich timeline. Sometimes Anne is sitting at a table with her MacBook sharing Google searches with the audience (yes, MacBook and Google). Other times it’s simple yet cutting voiceover where she shares how things might have played out. “If only Tesla had an enlightened hustler to steer him through the crass commercial world.”￼
That cynical yet thoughtful line of dialogue is actually a thinly veiled jab at Thomas Edison, played with a delectable balance of smarts and smarm by Kyle MacLachlan. Anne points out that you’ll only find the same four or so photos of Tesla on the web. Yet a quick Google search turns out countless images of Edison. And history bears it out. Edison’s renown has proven timeless. His success led to great wealth and notoriety. Children still learn of his work at an early age. Hotels, schools, bridges, a lake, a mountain, even an asteroid honor his name. Tesla died penniless and alone in a New York City hotel room.
Anne’s laptop, the internet references, even a later scene showing Edison with an iPhone all speak to technologies made possible by Tesla’s contributions. But Almereyda wisely keeps them brief and at a minimum, instead focusing on Tesla the man. From his early days working with Edison to their disagreement over direct current which Edison supported versus Tesla’s preferred alternating current￼. We watch him join Edison rival George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), selling many of his patents and costing himself millions of dollars down the road. And of course we see Tesla’s move to Colorado to do his own radical experiments away from constant corporate conflicts.
Through it all Tesla is shown to be a man stubbornly loyal to his work. Anne tries to crack through his shell, even using her father’s fortune as a lure. Tesla shows signs of interest but is overwhelmed by Anne’s game of cat-and-mouse. Even a sultry global stage celebrity like Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) can only capture so much of his attention. In one sense Tesla is fascinated by Bernhardt and her aura of fame. But who has time for relationships when there is so much work to do?
Almereyda’s style choices also extend to the film’s look. Several scenes are shot in front of beautiful yet blatantly obvious painted backgrounds as if we were suddenly watching a small stage production. My favorite may be a scene of Tesla walking out in front of a backdrop of Niagara Falls, his hair and raincoat soaked. It’s unmistakably evident that they are not on location, but ￼￼Almereyda is fine with that,￼ happily drawing attention to its artifice. And it fits the film in its own strange synchronistic way.
It has been fun watching the early reactions to “Tesla”. Some have been taken aback by ￼its weird beats and it’s unorthodox structure. Others have really went for its gutsy risk-taking and avant-garde flavor￼. Put me down in the latter category. “Tesla” finally gives the Serbian-born visionary the big screen treatment, offering him more than than a brief cameo or a thinly sketched supporting role. It happily embraces the Tesla mystique and tells his story with an ever so sly sense of humor (Just wait until you see a hysterical out-of-the-blue musical number. I’d be a villain if I spoiled it). Thankfully ￼the film’s blending of the past, present, and future is more than a gimmick and Hawke’s stoic, internalized performance is the perfect anchor for this spunky and stylish bio.
VERDICT – 4 STARS