In the press release for the movie Tesla, Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) is described as “an engineer, scientist and inventor credited with devising the first practical application of alternating current (AC) to generate and distribute light and power.”
He was also a mysterious, enigmatic man who shared the company of contemporary geniuses like Edison and George Westinghouse. He worked for them both.
His intellect and imagination rivaled theirs, yet he died in relative obscurity, a mere historical footnote.
His name emerged from the shadows when Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard thought it would be a good choice for his line of electric cars.
It was an homage to the man who developed the AC electric motor used in Tesla’s groundbreaking vehicles.
He’s a fascinating historical figure, whose story plays equally well in serious treatments about his life as well as fictional flights of fantasy about his futuristic vision.
It seems he can be anything to anyone. There is enough tantalizing mystery to go around.
The latest example is Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla, Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison, and Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse.
Almereyda is intent on taking the middle ground somewhere between reality and fantasy for the sake of creative license in the interest of movie entertainment.
According to the press materials, it all began when, at the age of 16 he befriended the comic book artist Alex Toth, a Tesla fan.
He started writing the script which was eventually optioned in 1982 for the Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski. Things looked bright.
At the age of 22, Almereydo flew to London to collaborate with Skolimowski, but the financing soon fell through and the film was never made.
Eventually, producer Uri Singer expressed interest in the project which had been filed away in typewritten form.
It took three years to pull the financing together and the project took on a new life. What emerged was a film with a unique vision.
Tesla is a movie unafraid to break with convention and tradition.
It is a free-form narrative largely told from the perspective of Tesla’s admirer in the movie, none other than J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne Morgan, played by Eve Hewson.
She anachronistically and shockinly sits behind an Apple laptop computer doing mini-bios of other characters in the movie including Edison and Westinghouse.
She supports her presentations with Google searches and large TV monitor screens of Google images as she is dressed in period fashion from a century ago in a setting from the distant past.
It’s attention-getting and surreal.
And it works as a thematic device, except for the fact that what is presented as objective, historically based information and fact, sometimes isn’t.
Case in point, the relationship between Tesla and Sarah Bernhardt the globally-famous French stage actress which quite possibly is the stuff of pure imagination.
It is rolled out as fact and thrown into the mix of other characters and relationships whose veracity and historical detail are inescapably suspect throughout.
In short, you’re never sure what to believe.
Tesla, doesn’t purport to be a fact-based biopic, so in its defense, it has full right to go in any direction Almereyda wants it to go.
But at some point, you are trying to separate fact from fiction knowing that some of this incredible story is real.
The shame is that some of the wow moments that you think are fabrication, really aren’t.
Like Tesla’s grand, spectacular dream of an enormous wireless power field that would encircle the earth providing electricity-- and information-- to everyone on the planet.
He was a bold futurist.
Unfortunately and tragically, is vision overshadowed his ability and capability to turn it into reality, at least in his lifetime.
While the movie is beautifully shot with come captivating performances, it leaves you wanting a project that would be content to present a more straightforward version of Tesla’s life and achievements.
His fascinating life story is one that really doesn’t require the kind of creative embellishments and devices that this film utilizes.
If you’re in it for pure film, toss all the concern about facts and details aside and enjoy Tesla for what it is: an enthusiastic blend of storytelling devices and cinematic techniques meant to surprise and entertain you.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
It manages to pack a lot of that into a low-budget film that was shot in only 20 days.
But if you have a serious interest in the real Nikola Tesla, you might have to track it down elsewhere.
Or wait for someone to take the time to sift through what we know about him so that we can try to make sense of him. Sign me up to see that movie.
Tesla can be seen in theaters and On Demand August 21.
Photos Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.