Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2020. Millennium Media, Passage Pictures, Campbell Grobman Films, Under the Influence Productions, Jeff Rice Films, Intrinsic Value Films, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, SF Films, New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture & Television Development, RNG Entertainment. Screenplay by Michael Almereyda. Cinematography by Sean Price Williams. Produced by Michael Almereyda, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman, Isen Robbins. Music by John Paesano. Production Design by Carl Sprague. Costume Design by Sofija Mesicek. Film Editing by Kathryn J. Schubert.
Key moments in the life and work of the Serbian-born mechanical engineer who could bend electricity to his will are the foundation for this impressionistic biography by Michael Almereyda, starring Ethan Hawke in the lead role. Naturalized in the United States as an American citizen, Tesla first works for the enterprising Thomas Edison (a spot-on Kyle MacLachlan) before striking out on his own, perpetually creating new devices and experimenting with new technologies, his financial survival tricky while Edison the skillful industrialist thrives. It’s narrated, mostly on screen, by Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. and would-be love interest for Tesla, her testimony frequently doubling back on itself and revealing, quite openly, that many of the scenes have been invented for thematic purpose and are not actually how things went done. Almereyda cheekily plays with this self-reflexive form of storytelling to emphasize the tendency of history to create popular narratives that suit the victors, further muddling the film’s serious tone by introducing modern-day technology (laptops, smartphones, Google searches) to not only tie Tesla in with a long historic strand of the century’s development in communications, but to also lay bare how little he benefited from it personally; at the verge of going under, Edison merges with J.P. Morgan on the agreement that Tesla give up his intellectual proprietorship of his machines, which he readily agrees to because, as this film makes clear in just about every scene, he only lives for the idea, not the profits. In the film’s weak conclusion, Tesla leaves the moneyed titans behind him and takes his contraptions to Colorado where he practically loses himself in its wide open spaces, a terrific sequence that is then wrapped up quickly by Almereyda’s seeming inability to decide how to end things and opting for Hawke badly singing a Tears For Fears song. Imagine Raoul Ruiz directing Metropolis and you have a sense of the magical interplay of warm images weaving in and out of cold, hard historical facts, the story examining the conflict between the head (industry and capitalism) and the heart (creativity, invention, magic even) and what the two sides of this conflict represent. Unfortunately this not a particularly profound theme and the film’s aims are rather puzzling, as a biography it’s shallow and avoids getting into facts and figures, as an exploration of capitalist greed it doesn’t go beyond a superficial portrait.