Near the end of the 1800s, the battle for the future of electricity – as shown in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla – came down to two men: Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), whose direct current method was costly and dangerous, and Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), who utilized alternating currents for a cleaner, easier and cheaper way of harnessing electricity. Early on in Tesla, these two men have a disagreement at Edison’s factory, which ends in them smashing ice cream cones into each other’s faces. At this point, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of J.P. Morgan, potential romantic interest for Tesla and the film’s occasional narrator, states that this argument likely didn’t end this way. She also sits down in a candlelit room, pulls out a MacBook and points out Googling Tesla only results in a handful of pictures, while Edison’s search contains multitudes.
It is Anne’s narration and her moments talking directly to the audience that showcase what exactly Almereyda’s approach to this unconventional biopic will be. Tesla is about how notoriety, money and a few poor choices can decide who defines the future, but Almereyda will tell this story with the benefit of hindsight, knowing not just who the ultimate winner in this battle is, but what technology, music and pop culture will come in the next 100+ years. It’s a solid attempt to try and shake up the biopic with some idiosyncratic touches, but Tesla is never as interesting as its concept implies.
In what will likely go down as Tesla’s most defining scene, Hawke as Tesla sings “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in its entirely to the camera. While it’s an amusing scene for just how out of place it seems in a period drama, it’s not as if these Tears for Fears’ lyrics are something we can imagine Tesla thinking or believing. Hawke plays Tesla quiet and close to the chest, and while looking at his non-blinking eyes, one can see the cogs working overtime, Tesla never quite digs into who Tesla actually was. Near the end of the film, a character asks Tesla, “What do you want to do?,” and even though we’ve seen his ambition, inventions and his desire to do something important with greater care than his competitor, we also have that same uncertainty as to what Tesla’s ultimate goal is as well.
The script – which Almereyda also wrote – seems like it could’ve started as a fairly straight-forward biopic, but then the little touches out of time were added to shake up this conventional narrative. It’s easy to see how a standard narration could’ve turned into Anne reading Google search results, or how scenes with historical inaccuracies, which Anne points out immediately after didn’t happen the way they are presented, were added with the hope of making this seem like more than the standard The Imitation Game/The Theory of Everything/etc. type of film. This kind of mixing of the past and present isn’t a terrible idea – Almereyda has done this especially well in his 2000 adaptation of Hamlet – but it isn’t as tight a combination as it could be.
Yet most of Almereyda’s choices are smartly handled, such as his desire to substantially focus on the importance of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, in which Tesla runs into a collection of compelling characters, like George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). While many of their scenes together are as previously mentioned mostly fabricated, the film shines when it focuses on the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, especially considering how MacLachlan is captivating in a way that Hawke’s Tesla is understandably not. Almereyda also makes another unusual choice through his locations. At first his characters exist in smoky, dark rooms of actual locations, but the further the film goes, the more he puts these characters in false environments, with projected backgrounds and clearly staged. Almereyda seems to be presenting the artifice of the entire project, but the almost karaoke-like backgrounds suggest they could be illustrating the breaking down of the world around Tesla, as his once-certain success fades away, leaving him a progressive inventor with no funds to support his dreams.
Tesla is as ambitious as its namesake, and while many of Almereyda’s ideas for this approach work, the more bombastic and memorable ones don’t fully blend as well they should. It’s a unique concept for sure, but Tesla lacks the electricity it needs to make its ideas work completely.