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Review: Atmospheric 'Tesla' Lacks Charge

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 21, 2020
'Tesla'
'Tesla'  

Michael Almereyda writes and directs "Tesla," an irrepressible biopic about the legendary inventor Nikolai Tesla (Ethan Hawke) whose brilliance and eccentricities have spawned multitudes of legends, and whose battles with Thomas Edison have fascinated Hollywood for years.

Almereyda seems to posit the notion that Tesla was a genius who stood outside his time — somewhat like Michelangelo, perhaps, whose visions of scientific wonders didn't work out in his own lifetime because the technology and materials of science didn't yet exist to make his ideas into reality. Underscoring that idea are scatterings of anachronism — Edison pulling out an iPhone, for instance, or Tesla attending an afterparty for international stage phenomenon Sarah Bernhardt as techno music throbs.

These gestures are only one means by which Almereyda pulls "Tesla" out of the ordinary confines of narrative filmmaking. The use of paintings and blue screen backdrops instead of location filming gives the film a hermetic, artificial feel; so does the script, which feels like a box full of shards that have been duct taped together so as to suggest, rather than present, the shape of a life. The result is long on atmospherics, but short on details; we see Tesla, early in his career, at work for Edison (who is played by Kyle McLaughlin), having a disagreemnt over money. "You think I owe you fifty thousand dollars," Edison notes wryly. "You have no understanding of the American sense of humor." Does this mean that the two men had made a wager, one that Edison enterted into in jest? Or had Tesla suggested that he should be better paid for his contributions? The disagreement is referenced later on, when the two meet again years later, but never explained.

Similarly murky are Tesla's dealings with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), who convinces Tesla to tear up a profitable contract. Was Westinghouse's take of financial woes and corporate maneuverings a smoke screen, or were his concerns genuine? There's a genuine need to know this, since it means the difference of Tesla being either an easily swayed rube or an incredibly generous and dedicated scientist. But we don't find out here whether Tesla is rescuing a company, as he's told he's doing, or simply being swindled (and not for the first time).

But "Tesla" makes no pretense at being objective. The film is narrated by another character who stands outside of time, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of J.P. Morgan, who financed some of Tesla's experiments. Anne provides us with some historical context (she suggests that we Google Tesla versus Edison and appreciate the difference in how well the two are documented and appreciated) and, when she's inside the film rather than commenting on it, she serves as a kind of counterweight to Tesla's rarefied (and increasingly strange) musings, peppering him with philosophical questions that eventually take a turn for the pragmatic, if not the adversarial.

There's a kind of intellectual chemistry between the two, but it's with Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) that the sexual sparks fly, nowhere more literally than in Colorado Springs, where the two cross paths once more after Tesla has used a giant electrical installation to coax lightning from the sky (and, incidentally, sent a standing wave around the circumference the planet, burning out the town's electrical generator in the process).

While perhaps not as clear-cut as, say, 2017's Alfonso Gomez-Rejon-directed "The Current War" (which focuses more on the rivalry between Westinghouse and Edison, and explains the money dispute between Edison and Tesla), "Tesla" does give us at least the bones of the great rivalry between the two men and the sensational (sometimes gruesome) details surrounding the competition between direct current (which Edison promoted) and alternating current (which Westinghouse preferred, and with which Tesla worked).

But it's not the story per se that propels this movie, which is short on charge but rich in mood. The anachronistic elements, for instance, are sometimes cleverly dropped in, but feel gratuitous at other points; what's more, there are too many of them (Tesla performing a karaoke version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is a standout moment, though that might be for all the wrong reasons). Still, this is the kind of film that sticks in your mind, piques your curiosity, and offers up some indelible images.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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