The world is arguably overdue for a biographical film about the eccentric Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, and Director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story) has obliged with his new film, Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke. But this is not your traditional biopic. We know we're in for a very different, more dream-like, interior kind of movie in the very first scene. A woman's voice informs us that Tesla became fascinated by electricity as a young boy upon learning that the sparks he created while stroking his pet cat were the same phenomenon as the lightning in the sky. "Is nature a gigantic cat?" he wondered. "And if so, who strokes its back?"
Almereyda became intrigued by Tesla as a teenager when he became friends with comic book artist Alex Toth, who was a Tesla enthusiast. It became a lifelong obsession. The Serbian inventor was the subject of Almereyda's very first screenplay, which the writer/director would ultimately rework, decades later, into the script for Tesla. The director has probably read just about everything about Tesla ever written.
Along with Margaret Cheney's seminal 1981 biography, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Almereyda was particularly influenced by Christopher Cooper's 2015 book, The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius (which dispels many of the most popular myths and Internet rumors surrounding the inventor), as well as Derek Jarman films and episodes of Drunk History. Although Almereyda's film is serious in tone, the influence of the latter is felt in its deliberate nonlinearity and clever use of intentional anachronisms.
For those unfamiliar with the late 19th-century "war of the currents," George Westinghouse espoused alternative current (AC) for power generation and distribution; Thomas Edison favored direct current (DC). The latter had the famous Edison name and associated influence behind it, but AC current was cheaper. It could travel farther, supplying electricity to homes across a wider area than DC, so Westinghouse's approach required less copper wire and fewer generating stations. Tesla initially worked for Edison when he arrived in America but left in frustration when Edison refused to consider his novel designs for AC motors and transformer. Westinghouse brought the young man on board, and Tesla's AC design eventually won out.
After that success, Tesla threw his energy into the wireless transmission of energy, setting up a laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His main rival in this area was Guglielmo Marconi, who was giving radio demonstrations and developing wireless telegraphy. Marconi successfully sent the first wireless telegraphic signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901.
Tesla's own vision of wireless communication centered on building a global wireless communication system located in Wardenclyffe, New York, consisting of a power plant and giant electrical tower. The project foundered after financier J.P. Morgan pulled the funding, skeptical that Tesla's system was even plausible. But Tesla's vision of a wireless future did eventually come to fruition. That makes him the forefather of many of today's most revolutionary technologies, which is why Tesla fans often consider him the "forgotten father of technology." Tesla himself once said of his contemporary detractors, "The present is theirs. The future, for which I really worked, is mine."
Man out of time
Tesla is a well-known figure in my profession, so it's sometimes easy to forget that the vast majority of the public doesn't really know who he was—they assume one is talking about the electric car. (Elon Musk named his company as a tribute to the inventor.) That said, he has appeared as a fictionalized character in multiple novels, comics, films, and TV shows.
Most notably, Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige (based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest), featured a fictionalized Tesla (played by David Bowie) inventing an electro-replicating machine for a late-19th-century magician to recreate a rival's illusion, called "The Transported Man." And last year, Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon released the director's cut of his film, The Current War, a fictionalized account of the historical rivalry between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring electricity to the masses, in which Nicholas Hoult played Tesla.
"Nolan was clever in getting an icon [Bowie] to play an icon, but he also fabricated a Tesla that has no relation to reality," Almereyda told Ars. "The real Tesla didn't retire comfortably in Europe, he didn't dabble in teleportation. He wasn't, as Bowie seems to be in that movie, a successful businessman. He was a desperate, struggling inventor who kept chasing money that didn't show up. So I think of The Prestige more as a very good comic book movie." As for The Current War, Almereyda correctly notes that Tesla is largely sidelined in that film to focus on the business rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse.
So Almereyda felt there really hadn't been a film yet made about Tesla that truly did the inventor justice. "He's important partly because he did originate systems of transmitting and distributing power and light that are still with us, and that's an astonishing achievement," he said. "But I think he's also important because he embodies a sort of idealism about technology that's still very valuable and inspiring."
Per the official premise:
Brilliant, visionary Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) fights an uphill battle to bring his revolutionary electrical system to fruition, then faces thornier challenges with his new system for worldwide wireless energy. The film tracks Teslas uneasy interactions with his fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and his patron George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Another thread traces Teslas sidewinding courtship of financial titan J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), whose daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) takes a more than casual interest in the inventor. Anne analyzes and presents the story as it unfolds, offering a distinctly modern voice to this scientific period drama, which, like its subject, defies convention.