For the uninitiated, Nikola Tesla was America’s “greatest inventor you never heard of” until the 1990s, about a century after the height of his career. While an important inventor and creator of innovations that we still depend upon, his eccentricities and far-fetched futurist ideas are what seems to capture the modern imagination most. For better or worse, his overdue recognition is married to his “mad scientist” mystique and, ironically, may have benefited from that stigma. Director Michael Almereyda not only leans into the mystique, but turns it up to 11 by reinventing the biopic and blurring the line between documentary and fiction, reverence and irreverence. The results of this bold experiment, much like Tesla’s legacy, are intriguing, entertaining but mixed and muddy.

Ethan Hawke’s Tesla is a silently suffering genius, so it’s up to Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of future business partner J.P. Morgan and the closest Tesla had to a wife, to tell his story up to the end of both relationships. Periodically, she breaks the fourth wall, using a laptop to google images and facts that help guide us through the ups and downs of Tesla’s life and career. Whether or not the real Anne Morgan is the best qualified to show us the real Tesla is unclear, but as presented, she would be his lover if only he could stop working and allow himself to be happy. The truth of Anne and Nikola’s ambiguous relationship is the film’s central mystery. The real Tesla never married, so perhaps Anne is meant to represent all of his relationships? Tesla’s overall ambiguity leaves room for a creative filmmaker like Almereyda to take liberties, which he does in spades.

Almereyda fabricates and lies in order to get to the bigger truths, usually in an ironic, humorous way. Nothing is sacred except for the emotional truth of Tesla’s driven, haunted persona. Almereyda cheekily portrays Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) smearing each other with ice cream while arguing over the viability of AC (alternating current) electricity, which Tesla championed and Edison insisted was far inferior to his darling DC (direct current). This never happened of course, but the truth is their rivalry was very real and very petty on the part of Edison. Almereyda even uses visual lies, projecting imagery behind Tesla to place him in different locations, even spraying him with water to simulate the mists of Niagara Falls. When Tesla meets the superstar actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), with whom Tesla has a fleeting relationship, we hear modern EDM as she is illuminated by paparazzi camera flashes. Comedian Jim Gaffigan playing George Westinghouse, one of Tesla’s most important partners, is yet another reminder that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. It’s up to the viewer whether or not to laugh at these anachronistic choices that are all played deadpan straight. That ambiguity may not be for everyone, but it certainly feels fresher than your typical boilerplate biopic.

Disappointingly, as Tesla’s career flounders, so does the film’s final act. The novelty starts to wear thin both in the filmmaking and in regards to Tesla’s career. His grandiose promises of transforming the world with affordable wireless energy do not bear out. Instead, he is reduced to a deranged failure babbling about receiving transmissions from Mars, photographing thought, and creating light beam weapons capable of such massive destruction they would end war itself (it should be noted that the U.S. military has recently developed laser weapons for use against drones and other small craft). The culmination of this hard fall from stardom is the film’s most transgressive and head-scratching moment—an awkward karaoke style performance by Tesla of an ‘80s pop hit. In a film that challenges the audience’s expectations and doesn’t commit to comedy or drama, irreverence or reverence, we’re left wondering what the filmmaker intended and what the point is with this exercise in ambiguity.

Tesla is a biopic for people who hate biopics and this anti-biopic format may be appropriate for Tesla because of his enigmatic reputation and our fascination with the myth more than the man. It’s like a more reverent yet still comedically inaccurate version of “Drunk History” and if that sounds good to you then you’re in the right place.

In a film that challenges the audience’s expectations, we’re left wondering what the filmmaker intended and what the point is with this exercise in ambiguity.
55 %
Entertaining but enigmatic
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