An Equation Incapable of Solution: Tesla (2020) - Reviewed

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.” – Nikola Tesla

Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine that you live in the world envisioned by Nikola Tesla in the 1890s. Imagine that you can, with the flip of a switch, illuminate an entire room. Imagine that you have access to a wireless network, allowing you connection with millions of other people worldwide and all of the information available to them, as well as yourself. Imagine that your everyday entertainment and employment are enhanced by access to safe electricity, powering everything from central air conditioning to cable television to karaoke machines. 

Now open your eyes. You don’t have to imagine, because the world we live in is Tesla’s dream world. The futurist visionary, born in 1856 in what is now Croatia, possessed a brilliant mind which could understand the roots of the universe, the nature of electricity, and the behavior of machinery. He is responsible for the alternating-current electrical supply system we use today, and his genius stretched far into the centuries to come. He was an idealist pitted against capitalism, for whom the universe was an open book – but for whom humanity, and all its idiosyncrasies, were a maddening mystery. 

To tell the story of Nikola Tesla is to study the man’s personality through the relationships he forged during his lifetime, as much indicative of his singular virtuosity and apartness as the ideas he cultivated and the patents through which we know him. Through philanthropist Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), using a MacBook and Google statistics to frame the biopic’s narrative, Michael Almereyda presents Tesla the man through the lens of the technology his ideas would eventually pioneer. This creates an intriguing use of anachronisms, from Thomas Edison’s iPhone to synthpop blasting in a ballroom, and a strange dream sequence during which Tesla himself (Ethan Hawke) performs a bright karaoke rendition of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Not all of these technological touches work in quite the intended manner, but it’s a bold move in what would have otherwise been a straightforward period piece; stylistically, it’s gutsy and fun, and it brings the character of Tesla in stark relief against his contemporaries.

Tesla amuses itself playing with the lines between fact and fiction, unfolding as an informative narration that relies on whimsy and dry humor rather than flat factual dramatization – Nikola Tesla was a man of ideas, and Almereyda’s film is wryly spirited with his technological predictions and a heaping helping of anachronism stew. What resonates most profoundly are its performances, as a dedicated and very talented cast bring life to the reserved, serious Tesla and the few people close to him. Of particular note is Kyle MacLachlan’s portrayal of Thomas Edison as a P.T. Barnum of scientific discovery and invention, a strutting peacock with a congenial personality that earned him many of the accolades which should have been Tesla’s. Comedian Jim Gaffigan gives a surprising performance as entrepreneur George Westinghouse, gracing the role with a lively quirkiness bordering eccentricity with his trademark sardonicism. 

Rebecca Dayan and Eve Hewson, as stage star Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, respectively, play off of Ethan Hawke’s serious, reserved Tesla as women who championed him only to realize that he had no intentions of settling in the traditional sense; Hawke himself is truly a star here, perfectly swerving between the man who loved the world inside his head more than the human beings surrounding him, and the man who desperately wished he could understand them and love them far better for what they were. This internal conflict is played out subtly and with a detached sort of dour resignation, as Tesla himself realizes that his idealism is at complete odds with the nature of the society in which he lives.

While some of the creative decisions don’t quite resonate the way they are intended, and there are moments wherein the narrative indulges its quirkiness just a little too much, Almereyda’s Tesla is a colorful, thoughtful biopic that – sometimes a little too literally – reminds us how much of our modern comfort and industry has relied not only on Nikola Tesla’s ingenuity, but on the system that left him to die penniless and solitary in the middle of World War II. Far beyond his time, Tesla would have been content to see all of mankind benefit from his revelationss, but even the Chicago World’s Fair – ostensibly revolving around innovation and invention – ultimately was, for his contemporaries, a profitable fashion show. The true divide, the film suggests, resided in Tesla’s insistence that men do not invent: they merely discover, harness, and sell. 

Tesla once said that “the wonders of yesterday are today common occurrences”, foreseeing that even the most seemingly lofty of technological ideas would someday become the stuff of the hoi polloi. It is jarring to see a late Nineteenth- and early Twentieth-Century tableaux using today’s technology, but it works – because it is precisely how Tesla himself saw the world unfolding. And, a mere seventy-seven years after his death, wherever you are in the world right now, you are reading these words on the wings of everything he dreamt.

--Dana Culling