Inventor Nikola Tesla Gets a Suitably Unusual Biopic

Tesla is less “the story of Tesla” and more a dialogue with the audience about the infamously eccentric figure.

From Tesla (2020), dir Michael Almereyda (all images courtesy IFC Films)

Nikola Tesla was an archetypical eccentric genius, a man with ideas decades ahead of his time (most famously the method of delivering electricity, which we still use today), and who also related to pigeons more easily than other humans. For nearly a century, history and popular imagination mostly overlooked him in favor of his contemporary and rival inventor Thomas Edison. But the new millennium has brought on a wave of greater appreciation for and interest in Tesla, demonstrated by everything from popular webcomics about him to the fact that he is unfortunately the namesake of a deeply evil car company. Now comes Tesla, a new biopic directed by Michael Almereyda, starring Ethan Hawke as the futurist engineer.

Early on, the film depicts a notorious dispute between Tesla and Edison (played with perfect smarm by Kyle MacLachlan). Tesla, who for a time worked for Edison, asks for a sizable sum of money promised him, to which Edison responds, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” The two then sling ice cream cones at one another. At this point, a woman steps in to address the viewer, admitting that this incident most likely did not happen. This is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the philanthropist daughter of robber baron J.P. Morgan, and the film’s master of ceremonies. “Narrator” is an ill-fitting label for her, because she does more than provide expository voiceover; she also appears in person to discuss events with the audience, in addition to playing an active role in the story. She sits with an (obviously) anachronistic laptop and looks up information as she delivers it, discusses historical figures in terms of how many Google hits their names will turn up, and points out various exaggerations and fabrications the film has made as they occur.

From Tesla

Clearly, Almereyda is uninterested in any traditional idea of a biopic. The narrative is delivered almost entirely non-linearly; the emphasis is not on the arc of Tesla’s life, but on exploring his ideas, his personality, the times he lived in, and how the latter informed the former. Almereyda continues working with several artistic threads from Experimenter (2015), his similarly playful movie about social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Much like in that film, rather than attempt to create an immersive period recreation, Tesla embraces artifice, making heavy use of obvious rear-screen projection and even painted screen bakckdrops to conjure the late 19th century. It is less “the story of Nikola Tesla” than a dialogue with the audience about Tesla.

As the film portrays things, Tesla’s various conflicts all stem from his interpersonal peculiarities, which Hawke ably embodies without ever succumbing to any offensive awards-baiting tropes about neurodivergent people. If there’s one connective through line, it’s an investigation into how closely his eccentricities (like maintaining chastity his entire life because he believed it helped him think better) were linked to his remarkable ingenuity, and how his difficulties with other people may have to a certain extent been simply unavoidable. “Brilliant white man saves the world but can’t relate to his mental inferiors” has been done to death (and has won many Oscars). This film treats Tesla as neither a god nor a figure of pity, but instead delights in teasing out his contradictions. Notably, his relationship with Anne Morgan, whose romantic affections he cannot return, is handled with admirable grace. Morgan is not a lovelorn woman, but rather maintains a consistent fascination with her unusual friend. (Since she’s our host, one could view the whole movie as a collection of her thoughts on him.) At its best, the film even helps you see the world in Tesla’s own unusual way — such as how his interest in electricity was literally sparked by a static shock when he pet his cat as a child, prompting him to wonder: “Is nature a gigantic cat? And if so, who strokes its back?”

From Tesla

Tesla constantly switches things up, avoiding the viewer’s expectations of what a biopic is “supposed” to be. It is anything but a Wikipedia dramatization — in fact, in some ways it seems perfectly constructed for the modern age, spurring anyone watching on their laptop to go “Wait, what?” and do further research on their own. It’s rare to see a biographical film this playful, much less this smart.

Tesla opens in select theaters and on demand August 21.

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