“Is nature a gigantic cat? And if so, who strokes its back?”
As cinema, Tesla (2020) is somewhat of a whimsy, anywhere between Drunk History, historical reenactment, and a 1980s Eurythmics video, but as conceptual portrayal of the man who invented the 21st century, the enigmatic, eccentric, and ultimately tragic genius that was Nikola Tesla, Michael Almereyda‘s sweetly bonkers mixtape of a film tribute is pure connoisseur delight. And, frankly, eerily accurate.
It seems that the only way to pull off a decent Tesla biopic was to go full throttle meta.
Ethan Hawke is the Serbian-American inventor, born in the Croatian village of Smiljan, once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as cool a casting choice as David Bowie in The Prestige (2006), but likely much closer to life. Hawke as Tesla is saturnine, obsessive, distant, intense, yet at the same time heartwarmingly awkward, and if we were to believe Thomas A. Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, in a villainous mood), Tesla’s long-time competitor, and ex boss – Nikola is also lacking in pragmatism, and an all-American sense of humour.
As if to confirm his arch-nemesis mean-spirited remarks, we are treated to the full story of Tesla famously tearing up his contract with Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and thereby all his royalties, in order to help his then boss and colleague keep his company afloat. Hence, the father of the alternating current ends his life destitute, residing solo in a New York hotel, dying at the age of 86.
The scene in which JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), Nikola’s benefactor (and subsequent destroyer), plays tennis, while Tesla, standing behind a wire begs the tycoon for more funding, leaves a bitter taste in an otherwise mild-natured portrayal of the lone genius, fighting to figure out a way to procure free energy for the masses, wireless transfer of energy being the goal. Steal the fire from the sky gods, as it were.
Tesla’s entirely Promethean, ascetic life is narrated, step by step, by his perceptive confidante Anne (a sassy Eve Hewson), the daughter of JP Morgan, with whom he rolls into this tale, hand in hand, on roller skates (literally). Anne then casually flips open a laptop amidst the 19th century scenery, and compares the number of google hits between Tesla and Edison. Edison wins by double. The two rivals have a made-up ice-cream cone fight at one point, and in another confabulation, Edison consults a smartphone while poaching Tesla back into the fold following the latter’s triumph at the 1893 World Fair. The entire narrative backdrop (and scenic wallpaper) is peppered by inventions connected to Tesla, by design, patent or idea. The list of which is astonishing. Tesla’s best friend Anital Szigeti’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) almost-navigation-innovation discovery also gets special mention.
When Tesla leaves New York for Colorado, developing what would become the Tesla coil, capturing lightning in a bottle while blowing up the town generator, Anne finally becomes exhausted by his inability to focus on anything except work (namely, on herself). So enters the iconic actress Sarah Bernard (Rebecca Dayan), sexy and mysterious, and oddball enough to elicit Nikola’s full attention. Thus we are blasted into an underground nightclub scene, and a phantasmagorical wild ride, ending with Tesla i.e. Hawke clutching a mic, crooning Tears For Fears’ 1985 hit Everybody Wants To Rule The World.
This is time-travelling, dream-like, entirely trippy fare, yet properly fact-checked and buttoned up in waistcoats & period lace. I have a feeling that Tesla, with his famed OCD, passionate temperament, and an entirely prophetic worldview, would have approved.
Author: © Milana Vujkov