Dir: Michael Almereyda. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jim Gaffigan, Kyle MacLachlan. 12 cert, 103 mins
If Nikola Tesla, the great inventor of the Gilded Age, had a go-to karaoke track, it would surely be Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. At least, that’s the argument Michael Almereyda’s gleefully anachronistic new biopic makes. During its emotional climax, Tesla, played by Ethan Hawke in pomaded hair and an itchy wool suit, grabs a mic out of nowhere and nervously warbles the 1985 pop hit. It’s an odd sight, but a refreshing one.
Tesla is the rare biopic that’s honest about the artifices of the genre. Filmmakers like to declare their work a perfect mirror of history; actors will swear they were possessed by whatever great mind they’re replicating onscreen. But, in reality, those things are impossible. A person’s life is far too ungainly and unpolished for the silver screen. To tell their story is to turn them into a puppet – their fears and desires merely limbs hanging off the end of a string, ready to be pulled and posed in whatever way best suits the narrative. Almereyda has always embraced this truth. Even his ultra-modern take on Hamlet, released in 2000 and also starring Hawke, felt like an admission that Shakespeare’s true intentions could never be faithfully captured by the modern eye. The kingdom became a corporation; the prince became a film student.
A close friend of Tesla’s, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of JP Morgan and introduced here as a great, unfulfilled love, narrates his story. Occasionally, she’ll be ripped out of the narrative and shown sitting at a MacBook, or in front of a projector, as she compares Google results of the great figures of her time – Tesla, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse. Why are there are only three or four images of Tesla, repeated ad nauseam? Why does Edison have twice as many results? The way we like to imagine these men lived and breathed is shaped as much by their legacies as it is by the truth of their character.
And Tesla’s story is a tricky one. As Almereyda’s film goes to show, it’s hard to streamline a life that was filled with so many twists and complications; moments of genius that swiftly turned into failures. The writer-director starts in 1884, when the Croatia-born Tesla first emigrated to the United States to work with Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), and ends at the turn of the century, when his investors abandoned him and left his greatest ambitions unfulfilled. Within that time, he’d developed the alternating current electricity system that runs our homes today and explored the possibility of wireless communication. He ran out of funding before the latter could become a reality.
Hollywood can never quite pinpoint who, or what, Tesla should represent. In Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, as played by David Bowie, he’s the mystic – a man of secret inventions that cross into pure science-fiction. He was documented to have suffered from visions, often accompanied by bright flashes of light. They’d often bring him solutions to his problems. Tesla suggests there might have been something prophetic to them – that “our world, Tesla dreamed first”. In last year’s The Current War, Nicholas Hoult depicted him as the eccentric, irritable recluse. Hawke picks up on this aspect, too, turning his voice hoarse and pained, like he’s choking on his own sagacity. The naturally charismatic actor has made himself come across as unsociable as possible.
Or is Tesla the warning that, as Anne herself describes, “idealism cannot work hand-in-hand with capitalism”? He might have seen the future, but he failed the grasp the power of enterprise. It made him vulnerable to shrewd businessmen like Edison, Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). But while Tesla seems tempted to paint this trio as villains (MacLachlan’s winning smile here turns hollow and smug), that’s far too simplistic a viewpoint. They simply knew the reality of the world they were living in. And so, the film trudges through the meandering exchanges of dimly lit, backroom deals – flipping back and forth between dull reality and inspired fantasy. The biopic is an impossible art. You either bore your audience or reduce your subject to a mere collection of ideas and symbols. Tesla tries to find a way out of this quagmire. It’s admirable, not entirely successful.