They were the men who brought light – literally – to the world, but couldn’t agree on how to do it. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were the two pioneers of electricity in the 19th century, both aiming to unite America with one power generating system. The story was on screens last year in The Current War, a film with a troubled journey to cinemas which received a less than glowing reception. We’re taken back to the same rivalry again this week, but this time with Ethan Hawke playing the titular Tesla. And the approach to his biopic is as different to last year’s offering as AC is from DC.
A Croatian immigrant, Nikola Tesla initially finds himself working for the man who would become his greatest rival, Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), but the two part company and Tesla strikes out on his own to develop his own ideas. He’s convinced that alternate current (AC) is the way to bring electricity to the nation, while Edison continues to support direct current (DC) and has the upper hand, thanks to a knack for marketing himself and his products. Tesla, on the other hand, is an outsider and never tries to be anything else, so drumming up investment for his inventions and getting himself known proves to be much more of a challenge.
Biopics can have an uphill struggle. Historical figures who’ve changed the world may have achieved great things but that doesn’t mean their lives make great drama. Last year’s The Current War was a case in point, stodgy at times, hard work at others, despite an all-star cast. Radioactive, the Marie Curie biopic which almost disappeared down the black hole of the start of lockdown earlier this year, at least took a more adventurous approach by showing how her discoveries influenced the 20th century. It wasn’t a comfortable fit, and the film felt disjointed, but Tesla director Michael Almereyda has taken a leaf out of its book with a similarly unconventional approach. The links with the future are still there – a fleeting shot of Edison smoking a cigar and looking at his mobile here, a cleaner using a vacuum there – but they’re done with more subtlety. What’s less satisfying is the trippy feeling that goes with the film, a dreamlike quality with warped camerawork – and a solo, almost karaoke, rendition of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World from Hawke himself. In character, of course.
More successful, though, is the use of that almost clichéd convention, the narrator, but turning it upside down by giving the voice to Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) who directly talks to the audience, telling them how many Google entries they can find on this and that character. She was also the woman who loved Tesla – unrequitedly because of his devotion to intellectual pursuits and his natural preference for living inside his own mind. It makes her not so much an unreliable narrator as a very subjective one, viewing Tesla’s rivals as villains. Edison, especially, is painted in unflattering colours and even the audience, and America as a whole, is admonished for failing to appreciate Tesla’s talents. That she embellishes her story with some fictional scenarios – one of which verges on the slapstick – gives the film a welcome touch of humour, often of the arch variety.
Almereyda’s approach isn’t always successful, but it’s one that still manages to engage the audience, helped by a magnetic turn from Hawke, who takes what could be seen as an unsympathetic character and infuses him with some depth. Always the outsider, there’s the constant sense that longs to break out of the constraints of his own nature, but simply can’t allow himself that luxury. The director has also advanced the cause of the unconventional biopic, showing that it is possible to make a film about a ground breaker who didn’t lead a dramatic life and give it some originality. It may not be quite there yet, but it’s getting closer.
History, Drama, Biopic | Cert: 12 | Digital | Lionsgate | 21 September 2020 | Dir. Michael Almereyda | Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Rebecca Dayan.