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Power to truth – ‘Tesla’

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When we hear a movie described as a biopic, we have a general idea of what that means. Sure, the actual timeframe covered varies – some do snapshots, others go full cradle-to-grave – but the beats that are hit along the way rarely do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s the story of a real person, so a degree of structural familiarity makes sense.

However, sometimes you get a biopic that is not at all what you’re expecting. A biopic like “Tesla.”

The film, written and directed by Michael Almereyda, is a biopic in the sense that it tells the story of famed inventor Nikola Tesla – played by Ethan Hawke – from his early days working for Thomas Edison through his time of up-and-down prominence in the overlapping worlds of science and industry. We see the high points and the low as he seeks to make his mark on the world.

Stylistically, however, it is something altogether different. Whether it’s a motif of stage-like projected backdrops or moments of striking anachronism or a meta sense of razor-sharp self-awareness or any of a handful of aesthetic choices, “Tesla” doesn’t look or feel quite like any biopic you’ve ever seen. And with a narrative structure offering its own sense of fracture, the film is as weird and watchable as it is unexpected.

In 1884, Nikola Tesla (Hawke) is in New Jersey, working for the inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, “Capone”). He has ideas that could revolutionize the way electricity is generated and harnessed, but Edison’s enamored of his own ideas.

Tesla leaves, continuing his work with the assistance of his friend Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, TV’s “NOS4A2”). It is during this time that he first crosses paths with Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy”), the youngest daughter of world’s richest man J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz, “Ad Astra”). An odd but palpable connection between Tesla and Anne quickly grows, with the two of them falling into an indefinable quasi-romance.

(In one of the film’s many intriguing devices, Anne serves as a sort of master of ceremonies, a not-quite narrator who steers the narrative.)

Tesla’s partnerships and allegiances shift and evolve; his big break comes from his association with the great industrialist George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan, “Troop Zero”), who enlists Tesla in the Westinghouse/Edison current war – the choice between alternating current and direct current. But even as his success grows, Tesla’s ambitions outstrip his accomplishments.

Those ambitions lead him to move to Colorado in an effort to continue his experiments, including the development of the Tesla coil. This work is financed by Morgan, thanks in no small part to Anne’s influence. But eventually, the work stalls and the money runs out. Morgan, who no longer believes in the value of Tesla’s science, cuts the cord, as does Anne, leaving Tesla once more to face his fate alone.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Tesla” is unconventional – Almereyda’s filmography is dotted with these sorts of intriguing cinematic square pegs. Still, the scattershot aesthetic is quite something. At times, the film feels like a hybridized play, with lone players standing in front of flat projected backdrops. The deliberateness of the anachronism serves to accentuate the notion that Tesla was a man out of the time, a predictor of technological futures. Everything feels fluid, with even the visual acuity seeming to gently vacillate.

(It’s worth noting that many of the notable names in this film have worked with Almereyda before; considering the idiosyncratic choices – both narratively and stylistically – it almost certainly helped to have actors familiar with the process on board.)

Using Anne Morgan as the de facto narrator is a choice that invites constant forward motion while still allowing the enigmatic Tesla to remain so, a closed book even as his story is being told. Rather than revealing the foundation of the great man’s complexities, the film instead leans into the fuzzy area between Tesla the man and Tesla the icon. That sense of remove suits the subject beautifully, cloaking his motivations and intentions and requiring the observer to fill in the emotional blanks.

Finding the right performance lane for a film like this one is particularly tricky. There’s a delicacy required when dealing with such a stylized piece; it’s a tonal and presentational challenge. Hawke proves more than up to the task laid before him; his Tesla is a man consumed by the life of the mind, almost drifting through the real world as all of his attention is taken by the never-ending firehose of ideas blasting into his brain. There’s a sad-eyed stoicism to his performance, a mournfulness seemingly brought on by a disappointment in the world’s ability to comprehend what he is offering. A quiet, effective performance.

The rest of the cast performs admirably as well. Hewson is fantastic as Anne Morgan, a sharp-witted and observant young woman who quickly and accurately pegs Tesla as a man who both needs and will not accept love. She’s got a slow burn intensity about her, an intensity that burns all the brighter when she’s set loose in the interstitial moments. MacLachlan is a brash, scenery-chewing delight as Edison – he’s clearly having fun playing the man, and is more than good enough to handle the regular tonal shifts the film asks of him. Gaffigan is carving out something of a niche for himself, playing second- and third-tier historical figures – he’s as charming as ever here. Moss-Bachrach acquits himself well, as do Josh Hamilton and Lucy Walters.

“Tesla” is not your run-of-the-mill biopic. Considering the complicated nature of the man and his work, it only stands to reason that the cinematic treatment of that life should have its own share of complexities. It’s not what you’d expect, but it’s no less worthwhile because of it. This is a compelling and eccentric portrait of a compelling and eccentric man, a perfect match of filmmaker and subject.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 23 August 2020 20:25

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