In a touching scene that comes toward the end of Michael Almereyda’s postmodern quasi-biopic Tesla, the inventor Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) stumbles up to a tennis court where his former financier, the tycoon J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), is playing a game with his daughters. Speaking through a chain-link fence, Tesla makes impossible promises: He is developing a machine that can photograph thoughts and planning to create superweapons that will make war a thing of the past. Morgan is no longer interested, so Tesla wanders off to perform a karaoke rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” while rear-screen projection of glowing sunsets are graced behind him.
Similar moments of weird poignancy are scattered throughout the film, implying more than a little self-identification. After all, if there’s any industrial futurist that artists can identify with, claim as one of their own, it’s the eccentric publicity hound Tesla, who spent his personal fortune and investors’ millions on unattainable projects that he claimed were for the betterment of humanity. Almereyda, an irreverent director of potent ideas, is savvy enough to regard this last part of the legend with skepticism. For him, Tesla’s trials are the work of a lonely mind trying to prove its vision of the universe. The only pertinent questions are the same ones we ask of visionary artists, whose life’s work is rarely practical or complete.
It’s an analogy that Tesla draws more than once — pointing out, for instance, that the $150,000 that Morgan lost on Tesla’s experiments with wireless power was a sum that the Wall Street titan was more than willing to spend on multiple individual paintings for his own art collection. As he has done in some of his most memorable work (including the solid turn-of-the-millennium update of Hamlet and his very good Stanley Milgram biopic Experimenter), Almereyda both makes light of and inventively uses his budgetary limitations: The film is filled with deliberately jarring anachronisms meant to poke anyone who takes biopics literally, but more importantly to connect the past to our present. It’s less avant-garde parts at times look similar to cheap TV reenactments (with cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ usual fondness for diffusion filters and underexposed faces not exactly helping in those sections), yet the film’s anti-aesthetic qualities seem to be asking whether a more expensive-looking movie would really be better. These are somewhat intriguing questions, because we do know what a pricier version of Tesla would look like, given that the last decade has produced several slickly stylized science biopics, including The Theory of Everything, The Current War, and Radioactive. The big difference of at least two of those three, outside of the two just being pretty bad, is that they’re very conventional and formulaic. And while Tesla has its conventional moments, there’s also other under-and-on the surface delicacies.
The movie, at times, really pushes its awareness of its liberty-taking phoniness, but some of its ideas — like, the portrayal of Thomas Edison (a very strong Kyle Maclachlan) as a cultural icon who’s always in his fifties, even when he’s supposed to be in his early thirties — makes for interesting commentary on how we imagine history. Yet still in a movie that takes so many fun liberties, it almost seems like a missed opportunity that Almereyda doesn’t let Tesla invent a sinister cloning device in the Colorado mountains (à la The Prestige). That certainly seems like a fit with the movie’s Brechtian approach that constantly directs attention to its own artifice. Almereyda’s theatrical distancing effects — which also includes painted backdrops, obvious miniatures, and fourth-wall breaking, Google-assisted narration by J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson) — works wonders, both playing with the form of cinema but also with our sense of deconstructed history. His formalism works even better with a certain kind of performance, and the performances in Tesla are largely delightfully unshowy. Hawke, especially turns in solid work, often being so soft-spoken that he even underplays Tesla’s accent.
Far from the flamboyant figure of fantasy and popular myth, this version of the inventor is totally interiorized. Tesla‘s finest sequences are the ones that wordlessly conjure up a sense of isolation and idealistic pursuit: the germaphobic Tesla wiping his silverware as he sits down for a meal in front of a black-and-white rear-projected photo of an empty hotel dining room; Tesla looking out on a painted backdrop of the Colorado landscape; the depiction of the Tesla Experimental Station at Colorado Springs as a fragile-looking model. As these images pop starkly against the movie’s self-conscious they convey a level of sympathy that’s missing from all those larger, more expensive biopics.
Overall, Tesla seemingly takes its subject’s life and looks to distill the energy that powered him for over eighty years — an impossible task that Tesla himself likens to “getting the ocean to sit for a portrait.” Tesla underlines the irony that its namesake outlived all of his contemporaries who were desperate for immortality. If Almereyda fails to pierce the inventor’s skin and expose his ambitions, his film nevertheless has fun exploring the idea that we’re all wired differently. When Anne asks Tesla what he will do when all of his dreams come true, the inventor responds: “All of my dreams are true.” To watch this movie is to see them realized. Intimately bold and filled with strange, eccentric rhythms, Tesla is an avant-garde, collagist biopic of a melancholic buzz and electric moments of innovation that hums with big pursuits and lost dreams.
Tesla will be released in Select Theaters and available on VOD on August 21st.