Producers: Michael Almereyda, Uri Singer, Christa Campbell, Loti Grobman, Isen Robbins and Per Melita Director: Michael Almereyda Screenplay: Michael Almereyda Cast: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Donnie Keshawarz, Josh Hamilton, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Lucy Walters, John Palladino, Michael Mastro, Hannah Gross, Peter Greene, Blake DeLong, Karl Geary, James Urbaniak, Rebecca Dyan, Ian Lithgow, Jim Gaffigan and Kyle MacLachlan Distributor: IFC Films
Sometimes imagination just isn’t enough. That was true of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the physicist and engineer whose theoretical brilliance proved to be matched by his impracticality (or perhaps naiveté), and it also applies to Michael Almereyda’s unorthodox but ultimately disappointing biographical drama.
Actually, calling “Tesla” a biography is somewhat misleading. It is a drama, at least in part, but also a documentary of sorts. And it’s presented with stylistic extravagance in which artificiality and anachronism are playfully employed to explore what Almereyda sees as the themes of Tesla’s career. The blend is certainly intriguing, but proves as unstable as some of the real man’s inventions, especially since it’s presented in an arch, highly controlled fashioned that leaves it emotionally remote as well as pretentious.
Tesla, of course, has become in some circles the very symbol of misunderstood genius, a visionary whose theories about electricity and wireless technology were far ahead of their time and dismissed by more prosaic minds. (That image, of course, finds modern expression in the name of Elon Musk’s electric car.) Almereyda’s film treats him as a kind of secular saint, a martyr to his intellectual inferiors’ greed and obtuseness. (Tesla died in penury in 1943.)
Rather than attempting to dramatize Tesla’s life in a conventional docu-drama way, Almereyda has large portions of it narrated, complete with archival stills, by Eve Hewson as Anne, the daughter of J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), one of Tesla’s later investors, who was attracted to the futuristic thinker. Much of what’s covered, either through her words or the dramatic scenes, was told recently in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s problematic “The Current War,” but from the perspectives of rival industrial giants Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, both of whom were trying to harness the power of electricity for their own financial ends. Nicholas Hoult’s Tesla was on the periphery of their titanic struggle.
Here, in the person of Ethan Hawke, in full brooding, introverted mode, he’s the focus of things, with Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), along with Keshawarz’s Morgan, shunted to the sidelines, though all three actors bring as much punch to the roles as the script allows and frequently invigorate things. (Gaffigan’s Westinghouse of course, is portrayed as far more fluttery than Michael Shannon’s version was in “Current”).
As Almereyda’s telling proceeds through Tesla’s unhappy sojourn in Edison’s lab (marked by their differences over AC current) and his more successful but financially unsuccessful partnership with Westinghouse, through his later, failed, efforts, with assistance from Morgan and the help of his ever-loyal assistant Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), to prove his more advanced theories, it exults in technique that repeatedly calls attention to itself. Scenes are presented in highly theatrical images, with the actors posed against painted backdrops and photographs. When presenting her narration, Anne frequently resorts to a laptop and Google to retrieve appropriate information. She also identifies sequences that are palpably untrue—one in which Edison and Tesla end a disagreement by smashing ice cream cones into each other’s faces, another in which Edison apologizes profusely to Tesla and then nonchalantly toys with his smart phone as Nikola watches his movie machine—to avoid bamboozling the viewer. The botched execution William Kemmler with an electric chair powered by AC current is presented as a weird tableau and topped by a bitingly dark observation from Edison. And toward the close, as his hopes lie in ruins, Tesla takes to a microphone onstage to offer an off-key karaoke rendition of Tears and Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” an obvious slap at his supposed benefactors and those who would use his ideas for unsavory purposes.
Individually, these disparate elements are amusing and arresting; taken together, though, they create a disjointed feel. Still, these are plenty of incidental pleasures along the way, not only in Almereyda’s insouciance and the expert craft contributions of production designer Carl Sprague, costumer Sofia Mesicek, cinematographer Sean Williams and video effects supervisor Jonathan Podwill—all the more impressive in view of what must have been a limited budget—and the performances of Hawke, MacLachlan, Gaffigan, Keshawarz and Moss-Bachrach. Hewson also creates a splendidly haughty portrait of Anne, while Rebecca Dyan has a fine time as Sarah Bernhardt, who is equally enthralled by the cerebral Tesla. Kathryn J. Schubert’s editing does not always succeed in juggling the film’s kaleidoscopic moods, and John Paesano’s score likewise has its lapses, but these are relatively minor flaws.
Overall, though, there’s an aura of thwarted grandiosity here—in both the man and Almereyda’s ambitiously variegated treatment of him.