Last year’s Edison-vs-Westinghouse flick The Current War cast Nikola Tesla, one of the most fascinating figures of modern history, as naught but a supporting player in the story of how the world came to be electrified in the late 19th century. Even though that incredible advancement may not have happened at all without him, and almost certainly would have been radically different if his ideas had been given full flourish. I really liked The Current War, but it was as if that film had embraced as a positive the notion made explicit here, in Tesla, that “idealism cannot work hand in hand with capitalism,” that the desire to make huge sums of money crushes true innovation, and that the only paradigm shifts that will be fostered are the ones that will also be profitable.
I noted in my review of The Current War that Tesla “deserves a movie on his own.” There have been a few, mostly documentaries. But nothing like Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke (Juliet, Naked, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) as the inventor and visionary. It’s from writer-director Michael Almereyda, who made an intriguingly off-kilter movie about science and scientists in his 2015 Experimenter. That one told the tale of Stanley Milgram’s 1960s “electroshock a stranger because we ordered you to” study with a (quoting myself) “constructed cinematic artificiality that echoes the illusory nature of Milgram’s experiment.” I found it all fascinatingly engaging.
I wish I could say the same about Tesla. Oh, it similarly plays with artificiality, and with challenging the visual and narrative clichés of these sorts of movies, but here it’s all mostly at odds with a celebration — or even merely an examination — Tesla’s life and work. Instead of underscoring the unconventionality of Tesla’s fanciful, innovative genius, too often Almereyda’s deployment of painted backdrops and rear projection seem to suggest that the man himself wasn’t the real deal. Occasionally hints of our modern world leak in: The 21st-century city noise of sirens and jackhammers becomes an auditory backdrop to a meeting Tesla takes with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan: Playmobil: The Movie, Hot Pursuit). After an encounter with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan: The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Inside Out), the other inventor pulls out a smartphone(!) to scroll through, as a way to indicate he has dismissed Tesla.
This latter stuff works, as a way, perhaps, to indicate how Tesla foresaw much of the tech we take for granted today (and might have had sooner if he’d been heeded more closely). But the mix of modern and historical gets increasingly offputting, and then downright cringey by the end of the film. Hawke’s portrayal of Tesla as constantly slightly bewildered by the crassly commercial motives of everyone around him is terrific, a warm and empathetic way to communicate his disconnect from almost everyone else around him. But the film’s less intimate, more synthetic attempts to show how he was a complete oddball who fit in nowhere come across more as a nod to the mystique, the legend, that has developed around him since his death than a way to understand him.
I wish Tesla were either more earnest or more bonkers. This mushy middle does not do a misunderstood figure justice. I’m so disappointed.