Film Review: Tesla
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda. US, 2020, 102 minutes.
Available on video-on-demand platforms.
“The best machine is the one with the fewest parts,” mumbles Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) in one of the many adumbral backroom discourses dramatized in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, a turn-of-the-century biopic that doesn’t appear to buy its protagonist’s claim. Laced with playful anachronisms, budget-conscious distancing techniques, and narrative detours that a screenwriting lecturer would surely deem inexcusable, the movie foregrounds the excess that most historical fictions hack away, giving us a vision of the past replete with tangled knots and loose ends. Guiding us through this maelstrom with citations from Google search results is an omniscient narrator (Eve Hewson), who also plays J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne in the film and who at one point launches a torrent of questions at the famed inventor culminating with the following brainteaser: “Is your brilliance a blessing or a curse?” Hawke, pitching Tesla on a fine line between wounded pathos and intimidating remoteness, waits through a long, pregnant beat and sighs, “You have become much better at asking questions,” a deflection that pretty definitively sinks the chances of Almereyda’s film providing any clear answers about its subject.
Coming on the heels of Experimenter (2015), Almereyda’s shape-shifting Brechtian portrait of Stanley Milgram, and Marjorie Prime (2017), a haunting chamber piece about the intersection of boundary-pushing technology and human consciousness, Tesla would seem to continue for the filmmaker a recently blossomed interest in pioneering futurism. But in fact the basis for Tesla is a script written by Almereyda in the early ’80s, before he’d even directed a film. One suspects this accounts for some leaden, subtext-underlining dialogue, like one running metaphor linking Tesla to a cat. But other times, an intriguing sense of abstraction creeps into exchanges, like the following:
Professor Anthony: Look at Mr. Tesla’s motor. It’s going to make him very famous.
Anne Morgan: Well in that case, we can split my sandwich.
Evelyn: Do you like snow? Looks like we’re going to get a lot more of it.
Such obfuscation of Tesla’s actual inventions becomes a recurring bit: when his AC conductor is first demonstrated, he’s blocked in the frame by an incidental character, and later, when testing an experimental reactor in stormy Colorado high country, Hawke’s shadow envelops the device. In lieu of reveling in specific patenting victories, Almereyda privileges the man’s tormented striving toward revolutionary ideals, and counters this pursuit with a stream of crass capitalists—a fantastically smug Donnie Keshawarz as J.P. Morgan himself, an unctuous Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse—who dictate his financial prospects. Routinely compressing years of major events into a few pithy lines of Hewson narration set to archival imagery, the film works to overlay Tesla’s life with a sense of doomed fatalism, and to reckon with the fact that most visionary quests will go insufficiently fulfilled in one’s lifetime.
Obviously, this logic doesn’t apply to a filthy rich egomaniac like Elon Musk, but it does tend to apply to artists, and it’s not a huge leap to suggest that Almereyda relates to a certain exasperated perseverance apparent in Tesla’s struggle. Hardly an excuse for slack execution, though, the film’s modest budget instead facilitates Almereyda and director of photography Sean Williams’s vigorous formal experimentation, which encompasses Guy Maddin-esque rear projection, overheated lighting straight out of late period Raul Ruiz, and optical aberrations reminiscent of those in Sokurov’s Father and Son (2003). More than any of these reference points, however, the film’s overarching gloominess calls to mind Peter Watkins’ masterpiece Edvard Munch (1974), another paean to heedless ambition and underappreciated genius set in the early days of the lightbulb. Not as emotionally wrenching or psychologically revealing as that film, Tesla is nonetheless equally averse to easy understanding, and is driven, like its hero, by a will to reinvent itself—a quality nowhere more evident than in a climactic scene when Hawke, previously just a sentient furrowed brow, launches into a trembling karaoke version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” As the lyrics draw uncanny parallels with Tesla’s story, the desire to seek answers about him melts away, leaving in its wake a tragic sense of unfulfillment: “Nothing ever lasts forever.” [★★★★]