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The biopic is one of the least daring movie genres. Filmmakers can be too focused on accuracy, and the lead actors often care more about mimicry than nuanced performance. From My Left Foot to Bohemian Rhapsody, viewers have a baseline expectation of where these stories will go. If Walk Hard was an attempt to skewer this genre, then director Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is an attempt to reinvent it. Almereyda and his cast break the fourth wall, include idiosyncratic, anachronistic pop culture references, and call attention to the artificiality of the film’s own production values. This approach is a good fit for the material, since a traditional biopic of inventor Nikola Tesla would be too staid.
When we first meet Tesla (Ethan Hawke), he is working in a lab owned and operated by Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Many biographies and pop history books speak of the rivalry between these two inventors, although Tesla suggests they merely walked the same path for a short while. The most intriguing section of the film is where Tesla strikes out on his own, powering the World’s Fair in Chicago with alternating current and experimenting with lightning storms in Colorado. Other important figures wander into his life, like George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and famed actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). All this suggests Tesla was a particular man, incurious about fame or success and driven by where his ideas might lead.
That kind of man—intelligent, reserved, and awkward—does not typically make for a compelling biopic. Tesla’s primary tactic for sidestepping that concern is simple: Eve Hewson plays Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan and friend to Tesla, who narrates the film. She provides crucial biographical details, sometimes with the aid of a MacBook that sits in front of her; she defines fame through how many Google results these inventors have. Perhaps this tactic is off-putting, but then we realize it is no more artificial than an onscreen title card or dialogue with an overabundance of exposition. Morgan’s narration allows the main characters to be themselves, so the scenes with Tesla and Edison are more about personality than advancing the plot.
There are other flourishes that you might expect in an art house film. Almereyda uses rear projection for scenes where he could not shoot on location, and instead of going for realism, he highlights how artificial it is. This is no low-budget film that tries to look respectable, but rather it becomes respectable by owning its limitations. There are other, sillier moments that depend on the audience’s knowledge of film history. In one scene, MacLachlan devours a piece of pie as Edison, a nod to Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks. And longtime Almereyda fans may recall that MacLachlan and Hawke last squared off in his modern adaptation of Hamlet. This metatext serves as a trenchant reminder that biographical films need not be stodgy historical documentaries.
The dialogue is modern and Hawke’s performance is more physical than anything. His Tesla switches in and out of a European accent, and he moves like he’s in a constant state of discomfort. MacLachlan is the right mix of charm and menace, especially given Edison’s reputation as a cutthroat businessman. Still, the most memorable scenes eschew character development altogether. Hewson delivers her lines like a gossip or co-conspirator, and part of the fun is the impression that we’re being told a secret.
Late in Tesla, there is a moment that is both incisive and rebellious. Hawke has always dabbled in music, and here he grabs a microphone, singing a pop song from the 1980s. The important thing is that he does this as Tesla, moving awkwardly and barely singing along to the beat. With the lyrics slowed down, we can hear how the inventor might have identified with the song and its meaning. Of course, sketch comedy and parody have incorporated these kinds of references for as long as the genre has been alive. It is rare and refreshing to see it in a film that expects its audience to take it seriously. Just because Tesla was active in the late 19th century doesn’t mean that he should speak or act like an old-timer. He was a man of his day, just like all of us, except he also happened to be a brilliant thinker.
Tesla is available Friday on VOD.