REVIEW: Tesla [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: August 21st, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Michael Almereyda
    Writer(s): Michael Almereyda

Who strokes the cat’s back?

As Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) states from writer/director Michael Almereyda‘s Tesla coil set, Nikola Tesla is hardly as well known as the likes of contemporary Thomas Edison. She shows us her laptop screen with its Google search repeating the “same four photos” of the genius inventor just to fill his first page of images while Edison’s portfolio goes on and on. One was in the spotlight while the other was in the shadows. One knew how to play the marketing game while the other’s idealism allowed the game to play him instead. This is why a film like Tesla is important. It seeks to deliver his story and brilliance in a more palatable way than the footnotes of history books chained to the indelible allure of celebrity mystique.

There’s a reason I put “more” in front of palatable, however, since Almereyda’s idiosyncratic vision has already earned its fair share of detractors. Just look at my first paragraph for clues as to why considering our narrator Anne Morgan died in 1952. So how is she using a computer? How is she speaking about things she couldn’t know or sending us back into the main plot to watch as Tesla (Ethan Hawke) smashes an ice cream cone into Edison’s (Kyle MacLachlan) forehead before adding the caveat “that’s probably not how it happened”? The structure of Almereyda’s film can therefore be best summed up with the word “anachronistic” and even that isn’t enough preparation for Nikola’s rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” at karaoke.

But it works. Every single weird scene works whether the actors are in an actual room or obviously standing in front of an image projected onto a screen. That’s the beauty of cinema after all. It transports us to a time and place we intellectually know is artificial. Authenticity can easily be pushed aside in lieu of the emotional potency and artistic engagement of the story itself. To let Hewson’s Anne walk us through Tesla’s journey while also being a character from it removes the need for ham-fisted bookends dripping in sentiment as someone looks back. It also adds a level of welcome humor that Almereyda is quick to credit “Drunk History” as inspiration. For a script originally shelved in the 1980s, that’s an exhilarating update.

That the whole retains the decades of research put into building its final draft only renders it that much more relevant beyond mere entertainment. We see Tesla’s obsessive compulsiveness and introversion in full effect and acknowledge who treated him as inferior (Edison), who respected him (George Westinghouse, as played by Jim Gaffigan), and who wished he might be able to turn that perpetually-thinking part of his brain off for just one second in order to see how much she cared (Anne). We also become privy to the ways in which he was taken advantage of either off-screen (being swindled by his partners is described with a few lines of dialogue) or in full view (thanks to the entrepreneurship of Donnie Keshawarz‘s J.P. Morgan quickly transforming into capitalistic greed).

How you interpret that last relationship is actually a big part of why Tesla languishes in relative obscurity considering many might say he swindled Morgan out of money by providing nothing but exciting ideas he couldn’t bring to fruition. The question of financial gain always surrounds inventors in this way, but it’s especially true in Tesla’s case since he was creating for the betterment of mankind outside of the financial realm. He needed capital to get the ball rolling, but how many people are willing to supply it to him if the end goal is to ostensibly give the finished product away for free? How much is an idea that harnesses what already exists worth if it doesn’t also come with a means towards monopolistic control?

This is why Westinghouse—for all his altruism in trying to do right by Tesla—still wasn’t the best fit once talk of improving society always found its way back to “war” with Edison. It’s therefore ironic that Morgan would tell Nikola how nobody ever visited his home without the expressed purpose of begging for money since it’s what everyone does to him too. Edison wanted the pleasure of working in his lab to be compensation enough. Westinghouse wanted him as the ace up his sleeve in a personal battle. And Morgan wanted profit. It didn’t matter than he spent more on two paintings that year then the check he wrote Tesla. One penny is too much for a man like Pierpont if it didn’t earn infinitely more.

It’s a truth that forces Tesla into squalor at multiple points throughout his lifetime. It’s what leads him to lament his fate via a new wave song while lost in the throes of a bad night’s sleep. But it’s not what Almereyda wants us to remember when we leave the theater despite Anne’s philosophical chicken vs. egg questions about his subject’s legacy. He wants us to revel in Nikola’s confident nature, unparalleled ideas, and “magic” as depicted by a wonderful moment (with the help of Lois Smith) lighting fluorescent tubes with an electromagnetic field sans wires or connection points. He talked about aliens, stood up Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), and perhaps resented Edison and everything he stood for. But he also wished for a better and brighter future.

That’s the takeaway we glean from Tesla’s long nights spent alone writing in his journals and the longer ones on-site playing with lightning. Hawke is great in both venues as he expertly toes the line between enthusiasm and ego whether acting opposite another actor or looking out onto a fake two-dimensional horizon. The latter is part of Almereyda’s aesthetic charm. He could have put Hawke in a restaurant to watch him clean every item on a table with a pile of cloth napkins, but he chose to put that table against a picture of a restaurant interior with intentionally poor perspective. We aren’t supposed to forget none of this is real. We aren’t supposed to pretend a definitive account of Nikola’s life exists. Tesla is effectively informative make-believe.

[1] Ethan Hawke as “Nikola Tesla” in Michael Almereyda’s TESLA. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Eve Hewson as “Anne Morgan” in Michael Almereyda’s TESLA. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Kyle MacLachlan as “Thomas Edison” in Michael Almereyda’s TESLA. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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