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In movies like this, the moustache does most of the work

dir: Michael Almereyda


This film… It’s genuinely taking the piss.

A flick about Nikola Tesla, that has a narrator wearing period costume talking about how many hits you get when you google Tesla or Thomas Edison, that has a scene where an actor playing Edison whips out a smartphone. People rollerskate for some reason, and Ethan Hawke, using what passes for his Serbian / Tesla accent, sings a karaoke version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World to pad out the last minutes of the flick and get it up to the agreed upon running time of 100 or so minutes.

For some reason.

Is it funny? It’s funny in that it is deliberately odd, without actually being humorous. It treats its subject with abject seriousness, but the screenplay, I’m telling you, is as deep as the Wikipedia entry that it used to generate itself, like something the less responsible parts of the internet could spontaneously erupt forth with. It gives us a potted history of some of the stuff he did, some of the places he went and people he met, his rivalry with Edison, which wasn’t really a contest of equals, but more of one guy who dominated everything and another guy that didn’t like him much.

And a moustache, and a hairstyle. I’m starting to think that this is about as much as we can expect from biopics these days. It has the qualities and the feel of a high school play put on about a famous person, down to images projected onto screens to set the scene, leading to the memorable image of Nikola Tesla trying to feed an apple to the projected image of a horse. I use ‘memorable’ in the sense that, yes, this is what they spent their time doing, and ours, too.

In watching this, it made me have a greater appreciation for the other biopic I saw recently about a different scientific pioneer, being the Marie Curie biopic Radioactive. That, I dunno, at least made more of a case for itself and for Curie. I criticised the flick at the time because I thought it was a bit unnecessary to amp up the almost Asperger’s like tics and project them onto the actor just to give her something interesting / irritating to do that fits neatly into the stereotypes of scientists throughout the ages. This flick projects almost nothing onto Tesla, and makes him out to be a boring, broody and misunderstood emo kid from the 90s who people should have appreciated more, because reasons.

He is so boring that he can’t even supply any interest in his own story, which has to be narrated by someone else, who was, at least at some stage, more interested in Tesla than Tesla himself was. It is left to Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) to carry the heavy burden of convincing us why we should keep watching.

Tesla is one of those guys who is more than just an also-ran, but not by as much as people would hope. He’s often brought up in relation to other inventors like Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi and Bell and whoever else of the era that you can think of, but always in the context of how he almost achieved this or imagined that but never quite saw it realised in his lifetime. Because he occupies this nebulous in-between kind of place in human history, writers and other losers have often seen fit to project a whole bunch of meaning and alternate possibilities onto him, so much so that he is far more accomplished and powerful in the realm of fiction and science fiction than he ever managed to get close to in real life.

Though in real life he died in his 80s, broke and probably drunk, after decades of camping out in hotels and splitting to a different hotel in order to avoid paying the bill, so maybe his goals were his goals, and we’re in no place to judge?

In real life Nikola Tesla was not played by David Bowie. But in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which was the absolute highpoint of Tesla’s existence, he got to be played mysteriously and enigmatically by the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie. Not only that, but in the film he got to master electricity in ways the real Tesla dreamed of but never got close to achieving.

So this is very much a downgrade for Tesla to be played by Ethan Hawke. I mean, the biopic of no-one’s life gives preference to being played by Ethan Hawke over David Bowie. There’s just too much baggage there. Hawke may have put in a few good performances over the years, but anyone who lived through and saw Reality Bites back in the day knows that, in a lot of ways, Ethan Hawke as Troy from that movie is responsible for most of the bad things in the world.

Thus, the face of Tesla that Hawke projects into the world starts right off from a place of extreme punchability. Anne Morgan does her best to humanise Tesla for us, the audience, explaining just how brilliant he is, and what his idiosyncrasies are, and how mechanistic his mind is, thinking other people to be mere machines. But she is a character in the story too, often being seen forlornly trying to get Tesla to engage with her and have a real conversation about something that isn’t about his work, to no avail. While I have no doubt that their paths might have crossed in real life, considering his dealings with her robber baron father JP Morgan, the more the film goes on, the more likely it seems that the Anne Morgan appearing in the story and narrating Tesla’s long list of personal and moral failures, is just a figment of his imagination. The character spends so much time mooning over him that when she tells us her story at the very end, both outing herself and talking about the philanthropic stuff she did to help French people after the Great War, you wonder to yourself how much more interesting a flick about her life could have been, maybe with a regretful and constantly mooning Nikola Tesla talking about his regrets in not being more honest with her, or how he should have connected to her on a deeper level, if only…

Fuck that bullshit. She seems like she lead an extraordinary life that was lived looking forwards rather than constantly wondering what could have been.

But Tesla? Look, the film does do well not with outlining what stuff Tesla actually invented that worked and that lead to other advances, but with the stuff that Tesla did that looked mysterious, if not supernatural. It totally has a scene where he’s trying to wow supporters? potential investors? and it looks like he’s waving around two lightsabers. Is there anything this genius didn’t invent?

The one chap he meets who seems to get him and doesn’t try to destroy him immediately, being George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), still screws over Tesla because Money. Though he’s nice, and though he mostly seems more like a counterbalance to Edison as an older man who likes Tesla, as opposed to the older man who hates Tesla, I guess it’s meant to highlight Tesla’s daddy issues? I’m not sure. There is a strange subtext going on with Tesla’s intense relationships with men but his almost complete indifference to women, except for when he meets the most famous actress in the world, being Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). They seem beguiled by each other, but beyond that, I cannot say what this sequence means, other than that these people famous for different things once met.

I once met Evan Dando from the Lemonheads and Kylie Minogue at a bar called The Lounge on Swanston Street, but I am not sure that warrants a biopic. Maybe in their respective biopics the vaunted occasion might come up, but certainly not in mine.

Throughout Tesla himself mostly mumbles through in any given situation, confident that he knows everything that can be known about something, convinced he’s the smartest person in any given room, and that everyone else is too slow to catch up, and that makes for a somewhat unpleasant person to hang around with. Truth be told he doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of others, and it feels like we learn less about the man than we do about the frustrations others might have had in their dealings with him. The film does what it can to spruce up the empty spaces around Tesla with people who are at least more interesting on the surface if not at least more animated than him, but it leaves its central performance muted, and unengaged. And, to be honest, it’s not very engaging to this member of the audience.

And when it does its obvious anachronistic thing, like having Sarah Bernhardt come out to paparazzi flashes and synthpop music a century before either would exist, or the karaoke thing, it doesn’t really destroy the whole suspension of belief thing, because I’m not sure the film really does enough to make you think you’re watching anything much more than an elaborate play.

As annoying as I find Ethan Hawke generally, it’s not a bad performance. Okay, so the accent is terrible, but he actually manages to give a bit of a baffled and baffling performance as this strange person. Far from being an underdog or a misunderstood genius underrated in his time, he is portrayed and acted like what he was: a pretty amazing inventor who had some great inspirations who had a few ideas that worked really well, and a lot of ideas that didn’t work and were nonsense. And, he had what we would these days call OCD and was utterly terrible with money, and was weird around women. What’s not to like?

Eve Hewson does what she can to keep the party going as Anne Morgan, like the nervous host at a dinner who’s worried the guests are getting bored and might wander off. She plays the daughter of a very powerful and famous man well, considering she herself is the daughter of a less powerful but very famous man being Bono, the lead jerk from U2. I wonder what experiences she drew upon in order to capture the essence of the gilded cage she might have found herself in, during the Gilded Age…

I would not really recommend this film to anyone who actually wants to learn anything about Nikola Tesla. There are tweets which contain more relevant information about him, and none of them are from Elon Musk. But I do recommend it to someone who wants to watch the lengths a director, some actors and a production will go with a tiny budget in order to avoid making a conventional biopic about someone who really turns out not to be able to justify having a biopic made about them at all.

5 times if a film would work just as well without the central character in it you know you shouldn’t have bothered out of 10

“That motor will do the work of the world. It will set men free.” – I bet you say that to all the girls - Tesla