One’s enjoyment of Tesla might just depend on how they feel about how writer-director Michael Almereyda plays with and at times joyfully subverts numerous biopic conventions in his tale of Serbian inventor, and rival of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla.
Right from the beginning, Almereyda seems intent on flipping the biopic on its head. An onscreen narrator, who is later revealed to be Tesla’s future wife Anne (Eve Hewson), urges us to compare Google results between Tesla and Edison to get an idea as to how history has remembered each man. She also lets us know that a scene the film showing us a disagreement between the two which quickly devolves into them smooshing ice cream into each other’s face never actually happened, tipping the viewer to the fact that the film is well aware of its own artificiality.
Almereyda pulls the same “this never happened” trick again later, right after we see a scene of Edison admitting to Tesla that he was wrong about him and his theories and that perhaps they should work together. But this time the switch is in service of forcing the audience to think about what might have happened, and how our world may have been different, if things had actually played out that way if not for the sake of the personalities involved. It is an interesting device that illuminates the characters of Edison and Tesla as well as forces the audience to think about how the course of history can be bent onto new paths based on just one or two men’s force of personality.
But Almereyda plays with the artifice of film in other ways. The Narrator/Anne also helps bridge the passage of time between scenes with info dumps on the next major player in Tesla’s life who is about to be introduced or other pertinent information. Often these jumps to a new period open with Tesla or another character framed in front of an obviously painted backdrop representation of where the scene that is about to unfold is. Sharp-eyed viewers may also catch some additional anachronistic technology that slips its way in tho the narrative. And by the time where we get to Tesla singing Tears For Fears 198- hit single “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” the film has become a full-on impressionistic picture of its subject.
However, amid all of Almereyda’s playing with form and structure, the director never looses sight of his actors and their performances. Ethan Hawke’s Tesla is very much a man who lives inside his own head, constantly focused on problem solving and his work, only briefly coming out of his own shell to interact with others. It is a part and approach that could come off as wooden or lacking dimension, but Hawke manages to find a way to illuminate that inner life for us. Kyle MacLachlan as Edison delivers a somewhat more livelier and less stodgy interpretation of the Wizard of Menlo Park than we usually get to see on screen while Jim Gaffigan delivers a convivial turn as early Tesla inventor George Westinghouse.
There have been plenty of films that have dived into the life of Nikola Tesla and examined why history passed this genius by. And while he does not give us any new information on the facts of Tesla’s biography, Almereyda does manage to make us think about the unfulfilled possibilities that his work promised if the winds of history had shifted in a different direction.