“TESLA”— An Unconventional Biopic


An Unconventional Biopic

Amos Lassen

Nikola Tesla is the subject of Michael Almereyda’s unconventional biopic of the inventor. It is concretely based on Tesla’s life, but there conventionality ends. Almereyda covers all the major parts of Tesla’s life including his early years in Croatia, his brief tenure at Edison’s workshop, his success in developing alternating current, his difficult relationships with the Morgan family, and his experiments in Colorado Springs and at Wardenclyffe Tower. Almereyda leaves behind all narrative restraints and instead uses surreal stylization.

Rear-screen projections disorient effect and torch-carrying Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson)  is the narrator. The film freely skips around the Tesla timeline and often gives us long hoped-for incidents that never happened in life, much like a fantasy film..

Almereyda achieves a hyper-real effect throughout “Tesla” and this becomes the kind of film that we have to roll with. The film is a visual feat even when it is crazy at times. The film works well because of the performances of Ethan Hawke as Tesla and Kyle MacLachlan as Einstein. They are perfect in the ways that they contrast their differences. Hawke’s Tesla is a brooders who feels contempt for the success he chases. He introverted man and uncomfortable in his own skin. In contrast, Edison is a brash striver and even with this quality, MacLachlan conveys all his insecurities and fears of failure. He is Tesla’s rival.

This is a director’s film rather which makes it interesting that the characters are memorable in positive ways. Rebecca Dayan is sultry and magnetic as Sarah Bernhardt and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s brief but poignant work as Tesla’s aspiring inventor friend Szigeti encapsulates the spirit of the film.

The director is a consistently daring filmmaker and he consistently spurs all the tried and true clichés of biographical narratives. If you are curious to see the boundaries of filmmaking become stretched, it is suggested that you must watch Almereyda’s films and his work with indie-cinematographer Sean Price Williams. “Tesla” is sometimes eccentric, occasionally over-the-top, but it always amazing. 

Nikola Tesla  was an enigmatic visionary Eastern European Serbian immigrant (born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia) who was ignored during his lifetime but it was proven over time to be correct over his one-time employer and rival Thomas Edison when he came up with his breakthrough practical application for delivering an ‘alternating current’ electrical. Tesla was ignored and the more business-minded Edison used his model. The Tesla died in 1943 in a New York hotel after a long penniless life and was unrecognized by the public. 

Michael Almereyda now gives him his due with this idiosyncratic character study that tells the misunderstood genius’ story in a peculiar way that might displease some viewers as much as delight others.

Anne Morgan is the philanthropist daughter of one of Tesla’s  sponsors, JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and she is a woman whose perceptive take on the inventor is right-on as far as his great accomplishments and desire for self-destruction.  She remains true to him as a longtime friend even though she is disappointed that he cannot return her love.

We get a picture of Tesla as too idealistic and ambitious for his own good. He foolishly gives up a royalty deal for his genius invention for a relatively small price to greedy corporate entrepreneurs who do not have his humanistic concerns and i he begins work on a wireless power system with a huge potential for everything aside from making a profit. As his radical ideas frighten investors who see him as as weird, his fortunes dwindle and he dies as a lonely old man who never saw his visions used.

We do not learn about finer technical details of the inventor’s work, but we enjoy the film and are okay with  what makes Tesla such an important inventor  and why he should not be forgotten.

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