Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Movie with Abe: Tesla

Directed by Michael Almereyda
Released August 21, 2020

Tesla is one of the most popular car brands today, seen both as a symbol of luxury and as the future of automotive travel using electric vehicles. It’s a world-famous name that has almost taken on the standing of a Xerox, Kleenex, or Band-Aid in its universality. Its roots, however, are in a man whose avant-garde worldview was not embraced nearly as favorably as that of Elon Musk. Nikola Tesla was a visionary inventor who, at the end of the nineteenth century, was putting forward ideas that placed him in direct contact with some of his time’s most well-known entrepreneurs and giants, pitching revolutionary concepts that struck many as absurd or impossible.

Tesla (Ethan Hawke) begins his career in America working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), though Edison’s low valuation of his skills leads to a break in their business relationship. Tesla then partners with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), one of Edison’s key rivals who advocates an alternative approach to electric currents. Not one to bother himself with social interactions, Tesla attracts interest nonetheless from Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), who frames and narrates much of his story, which continually emphasizes how much more Tesla might have been able to accomplish had his peers fully recognized his true brilliance.

Director Michael Almereyda has shown a keen interest in technology and its potential uses and abuses with his previous two films, “Marjorie Prime” and “Experimenter.” Here, he spotlights a subject that many will surely want to learn about, but chooses to do it in a peculiar way, having Anne, who died in 1952, discuss the number of Google results that pop up when she searches for the key players in this film. That emphasis on anachronism is surely meant to invoke Tesla’s role as a misunderstood futurist, capable of knowing so much more about what mankind could accomplish than anyone in his lifetime. Other cinematic devices like still photographic backdrops behind moving actors make this an inarguably experimental but equally disorienting experience, one that seems to best capture the way many of its protagonist’s notions were received by a baffled public.

Tesla was featured heavily in another recent film, “The Current War: Director’s Cut,” which opened in theaters last October after a lengthy production delay due to its initial status as a Weinstein Company project. It’s hard not to compare the two, and while that film, which makes Tesla a supporting player to the main battle between Edison and Westinghouse, was much more conventional, it also presented the story in a more engaging and accessible format. In that film, Tesla stands out as a fascinating character worthy of more attention, thanks largely to actor Nicholas Hoult’s performance, but here, Hawke’s rendition makes him the least interesting part of his own showcase. MacLachlan and Hewson are far more engaging, though it’s not entirely clear why Anne is the one chosen to tell this story. Perhaps in a century this film will be seen positively and as ahead of its time, but at this present moment, it does a better job capturing the irreverent, unappealing nature of its namesake than communicating his brilliance.


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