From Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige to Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, much filmic attention has been paid of late to the professional rivalry between 19th-century electricity pioneers Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, who competed to establish their contrasting power systems. However, the enigmatic figure of Nikola Tesla has been largely relegated to the sidelines of Hollywood, and history, despite the late David Bowie’s brilliant yet brief turn as the inventor in The Prestige.
Hamlet director Michael Almereyda clasps hold of Tesla’s relative obscurity and attempts to reverse it in this supercharged, stylised biopic. Reuniting with leading man Ethan Hawke, he brings us a daring yet bafflingly bizarre breakdown of how this shadowy futurist was wired.
If Direct Current is like “a river flowing peacefully to the sea”, as Kyle MacLachlan’s Edison smugly explains, then Almereyda’s narrative cleverly reflects the flow of Tesla’s Alternating Current: “water running through a pipe for a given time, then reversed”. The plot of the film jolts back-and-forth between past and present – “like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice”, with that precipice being the fourth wall.
Tesla is introduced to us as a tortured soul; a Serbian outsider navigating America, and Edison’s underappreciated protégé. Brows furrowed deeper than the Grand Canyon, Hawke does a masterful job at appearing perpetually on the verge of tears or on the cusp of a major scientific breakthrough. As Tesla and Edison’s antagonism boils over into a pantomimic ice cream fight, the scene is paused and cuts to reveal our narrator – Anne Morgan, daughter of banking tycoon JP Morgan, who admits to taking a degree of artistic license. In her standout performance as Anne, Eve Hewson guides us through the rest of the film, with the help of a MacBook and a slide projector.
Though Anne has harboured unrequited love for Tesla since they met, Hewson’s searing gaze prevents the character from falling into the trap of doting ingénue. Instead, Anne becomes Tesla’s foil, counterbalancing his lonely idealism with her personability and capitalist cynicism – more interested in how she could have helped him succeed as his “business partner”, than solely eulogising his genius. In answering Anne’s mocking question of whether it is “better to be validated or loved”, Tesla appears capable of neither – even his brief fission with the magnetic Sarah Bernhardt cannot retain his attention.
Tech heads will enjoy Almereyda’s subtle portrayal of the current war as a precursor to the Silicon Valley power plays of today. (Except 2020’s rivalries admittedly don’t involve deadly experiments with black Labradors or prisoners condemned to the electric chair.) Tesla and Edison, Almereyda suggests, are the first in a long line of engineers who want to rule the world – a subtle hint at the jaw-droppingly kitsch karaoke sequence awaiting you at the end.
In Tesla’s belief that “every living being is an engine geared to the wheelwork of the universe”, the inventor prophesizes our assimilation into iPhone, Android and AI, and one of his failed experiments even preempts the wireless internet that Anne uses to tell his story. His eventual destitution, this biopic proposes, is due to the fact that he was anachronism incarnate, hopelessly ahead of his time.
Much like Tesla’s machines, there are a lot of moving parts to this film, and its lack of coherence brings about a kind of motion sickness at times. That said, if portraying Tesla is indeed like “getting the ocean to sit for a portrait”, then Almereyda should be commended for his wholly singular approach.
Tesla / Directed by Michael Almereyda (US, 2020), with Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan. Starts August 20