You may appreciate the inventor more even as you understand him less
Did Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla invent the karaoke machine? You might be prepared to believe it based on a scene in the new biopic in which the electrical genius, played by Ethan Hawke, suddenly picks up a microphone and starts crooning Everybody Wants to Rule the World – quite a feat given that the inventor died in 1943, and Tears for Fears didn’t write the song until 1985.
Then again, the scene in question comes late in a movie that has already played fast and loose with the historical record. At one point writer/director Michael Almereyda includes a scene in which Tesla gets into an ice-cream-cone fight with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), then has narrator Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) interrupt to tell us that that never actually happened.
She also invites viewers to Google Tesla and see how few photographs there are of the man, before ducking back into the story itself as Tesla’s love interest. Confusingly, Morgan was a real person (of the wealthy J.P. Morgan family) but the affair seems to be entirely fictional.
All of which is to say that Telsa is an interesting walk through the life of an underappreciated and misunderstood prodigy, but while you may come out appreciating him more, your understanding might actually suffer. Did Edison ever apologize to the man for his (non-ice-cream-related) slights? Did Tesla once take up with actress Sarah Bernhardt? The answers are as hard to grasp as a passing radio wave.
Tesla biopics have not had an easy road of late
Tesla biopics have not had an easy road of late. The Current War, which featured Nicholas Hoult as Telsa in a supporting role in the story of the conflict between Edison and George Westinghouse over whether the world would use alternating or direct current, had a splashy premiere at the Toronto festival in 2017, was declared a bust by critics, and sank out of sight. It never even got a wide Canadian release, despite starring Michael Shannon and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Tesla, meanwhile, debuted at the Sundance festival in January but has suffered the same pandemic blues as many other features this year, and is getting an on-demand release here.
Sadly, that might be all it’s worth, given that the experimental nature of the storytelling leaves viewers so little with which to connect. Take the 1890 execution of convicted murderer William Kemmler in the newly invented electric chair – it’s factually correct down to the condemned man’s calm last words, when he wished his nervous executioners “good luck.” But you might assume it’s just more screenplay inventiveness.
Hawke gamely tries to inhabit the character of Tesla, but has to fight with the stagey setups. (Some scenes take place in front of actual painted backdrops.) And rather than attempt an Eastern European accent, he instead pitches his voice low, slow and soft, and comes off sounding a lot like John Malkovich.
Telsa was roughly a contemporary of Marie Curie (he was born about 10 years earlier), whose own recent biopic, Radioactive, suffered from trying to stuff too much of her storied life into its brief running time. Telsa’s movie has the opposite problem – not enough of the man’s life makes it to the screen, and what does is suspect.
Tesla in available Sept. 22 on demand.
2 stars out of 5