Updated: Sep 5, 2020
Northern Nevadans know Tesla as the name of a big job provider in the region, but director Michael Almereyda sees something different. The director’s new movie Tesla investigates the real-life inspiration for the man whose visionary insights into an unknown future inspired the name of an innovative car with battery production facilities near Reno. But of course, Tesla’s accomplishments go way beyond a smooth ride, and no link to cars or Reno get mentioned in the movie.
Rather, the director explores genius and originality, choosing to follow a different path from the standard biopic. He starts his movie with characters on roller skates, moving on with a jumpy presentation that switches timelines. Dressed in an eighteen-hundred period costume, one character looks at a laptop and tells us that Tesla and his beliefs about electricity produce millions of Google hits, but far less than his competitor, Thomas Edison generates.
While both Tesla and Edison’s monumental geniuses deserve attention, making their scientific accomplishments cinematic proves challenging. As a genre, biopics usually stand out when they cover soldiers, singers, or subjects whose achievements involve physical action rather than internal mental brilliance.
Director Almereyda gets around this conundrum by imitating his subject matter and acting like an inventor. He concocts a few scenes, like Tesla and Edison engaging in a childish fight with ice cream cones. And incidentally, a quote “goofs” section on one webpage points out the flaw in this scene because cones for ice cream did not exist in those days. Yeah, but a character in the movie looks at the camera and tells us the incident never happened. However, the scene demonstrates the type of rivalry the inventors engaged in and makes a point about their personalities.
Actors Ethan Hawke as Tesla and Kyle MacLachlan as Edison take their roles and actions seriously, giving credibility to Almeyreda’s style. While not diving headlong into surrealism, director Almeyreda openly plays with details and even manages to add that biopic favorite, a pop song sung by its lead character. The director’s approach seems unusual, but well-suited to its inventive topic.