Dec 4, 2020 | LIFE | By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Michael Almereyda’s poetic realist-leaning biopic “Tesla” is about the foundations of power and modern capital within American society. It’s about Nikola Tesla, too, and an ice cream eating, karaoke singing Tesla at that. No, really, the film features a scene where Tesla slaps an ice cream cone into Thomas Edison’s (Kyle MacLachlan from “Twin Peaks”) face, something the narrator of the film immediately corrects, explaining how this (probably) never happened.
“Tesla” is filled with odd and intentional anachronisms like this, like a maid vacuuming an 1890s dining hall with a modern vacuum cleaner, or Tesla performing the Tears For Fears song “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” It’s weird, it’s often historically amiss, but it’s an inventive movie about an inventive man.
“Tesla” follows the Serbian-American inventor as he tries to both revolutionize electrical power and make enough money to survive. The film depicts Tesla working for Edison, patenting his own electrical motor designs, and ultimately follows Tesla to 1899 Colorado Springs, where he conducted his famed lightning coil experiments.
Throughout the film, narrator Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) –– the daughter of mustachioed finance mogul J. P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) –– explains to the audience that what we’re seeing on screen may or may not have happened, given what little we know about Tesla’s personal life.
We do know Tesla worked with George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan), who financed a few of Tesla’s patents. “Tesla” offers a scene in which Edison attempts to make amends with Tesla after using some of his patents without permission. Of course, the narrator interjects again, and explains how this scene would only have happened in real life if Westinghouse or another companion had motivated Tesla to be as cunning and brutal as the titans of industry around him.
Edison never gave Tesla his deserved credit, and the film realizes it is only presenting an alternate history, a history in which one doesn’t need to fight tooth-and-nail to get the recognition they deserve.
Ethan Hawke brings another great performance to the silver screen, reaffirming his status as one of the greatest actors working today. His Tesla often stands in front of images from the narrative displayed on an actual screen, and Hawke plays these abstract (and sometimes absurd) stylistic choices completely in character, never missing a beat.
While often absurd, the style of “Tesla” is both peculiar and quaint, as Almereyda utilizes subtly abstract ways to tell the story, such as an intermittent strobing red light effect, miniature set models of Tesla’s lab, and of course, the odd anachronisms sprinkled throughout.
In “Tesla,” several folks (Edison, J.P. Morgan, and even Morgan’s daughter, our narrator) suggest exploitative methods of gaining capital with Tesla’s ideas, whereas Tesla would rather bring better living conditions to people living in the “most wretched of circumstances.”
His financiers disregard these humanitarian aspirations, and are more interested in using Tesla’s technologies to communicate stock prices across the Atlantic Ocean. The film questions whether idealism can work hand in hand with capitalism, and this “idealism v. capitalism” conflict is both central to the film’s narrative and our own.
While the themes of “Tesla” are true to life, the representation of the time period is deliberately unrealistic. I take the movie’s anachronisms as the collateral bleed through with our own understanding of time, which might be the most accurate way of looking back to the past. When we look back to a time in which we did not exist, we’re influenced by our own biases, experiences, and context of living. Regardless, “Tesla” depicts a life of diminished returns, and what happens when invention meets reality. You can watch the film on Hulu.