A Jumble of Tone, Structure, and Style Bring Down This Bold Biopic
The name of Tesla has gotten fame in the last decade thanks to the electric car company of the same name and its eccentric founder Elon Musk. However, Musk named his company after the little appreciated genius inventor of the late 19th century: Nikola Tesla. Perhaps because of the of Musk’s company’s success, more attention is been paid into the real Tesla’s exploits. Only last year he was shown to have a big part in The Current War: Director’s Cut (2019) showing the rivalries between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. And this year we get a more focused biopic with Tesla (2020).
Tesla charts the eponymous Balkan-American’s (Ethan Hawke) path from working for the cruel Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), to the greedy George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and finally to the strict J. P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Tesla’s biggest success was in supplanting Edison’s Direct Current method for the safer and more efficient Tesla-invented Alternate Current method. Since then, Tesla’s interests dragged him to pursue science-fiction-like experiments in Colorado, where he began to lose investor’s confidence.
The film is directed by indie darling Michael Almereyda, and he is able to put quite a distinct stamp on this film. The narrative is told in a variety of ways, the main of which is a voiceover by Ana Morgan (Eve Hewson), J.P. Morgan’s daughter and a close friend of Tesla’s. Ana Morgan, however, tells the story from the perspective of today, mentioning Google searches, and converting money with inflation into today’s figures. The film also uses a unique visual style that is made up of various by-the-number scenes, and other moments in which an actor is playing against a photograph of a location or a drawing of such. Finally, there is a true mix of chronology, jumping between years, as well as with the film’s soundtrack. In this latter aspect we have melodies that would seem suitable for the times being represented, and other times we are pounded with electronic music (very suitable for the subject), and finally we even have the character of Nikola Tesla himself sing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” into a modern day microphone.
The result of such a jumble of aesthetic and narrative choices is that you get one very unique film and structure. However, it also results in a rather confused and messy plot. It seems as if Almereyda, for all his creativity, is really just finding ways around a cheap budget. The inability to film in certain locations (like when Tesla went to do his experiments in Colorado) forces some scenes to take place behind blatantly drawn backdrops. Now whether this is intentional by Almereyda similar to when he has the actors play against photographs is a mystery, but it ends up feeling more like witty wormholes through which to save money. In fact, the entire use of sets seemed to be more appropriate for a stage play than a film. Viewers will sometimes be treated to a scene with a simple plain color background and an actor speaking or staring at the camera as voice-over plays. If this had been the only gimmick in the film, it would have been fine, but added to so many others, it gives off the sense of desperation and cutting corners.
Almereyda isn’t able to bring much clarity to Tesla’s story in the first place, which no doubt would have been his objective from the start. In The Current War: Director’s Cut we get a much smaller portion of Tesla’s life on screen and yet we seem to understand his global impact in the history of electricity much better than in this film. Almereyda is jumping so much from his stage gimmicks, to different points in Tesla’s life, all with the droning narration of Ana Morgan that viewers are likely to be more confused than instructed. Ana Morgan’s entire character, unfortunately, is written as if she were constantly reciting a Wikipedia page. This makes the potential romance that Almereyda wanted to imply with Tesla, nonexistent. Hawke, meanwhile, is able to properly showcase the incredibly reserved personality of Tesla; however, Almereyda never finds a way to show any other side of Telsa and thus we are left looking from the outside in at this character. Tesla never takes the opportunity to explore deeply into Tesla’s genius or emotional hardships. They are simply summarized in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments.
In the end, Tesla is a confused and incredibly jumbled mess of tone, style, and structure. No doubt this diversity of colorful and ambitious ways of storytelling encapsulates the drive of the actual inventor; but as a film seeking to honor such a man, it is a gross let down. Almereyda should be commended for bold steps in trying to tell this story, but unfortunately, they simply don’t coagulate to make a conductive (pun intended) and instructive film about one of history’s most underappreciated geniuses.