Now Playing! ‘Tesla’ and Iranian History Electrify Home Screens

Ethan Hawke in 'Tesla.' (Courtesy Sundance)

All sectors of the movie business are fixated this month on Warner Bros.’ strategy to squeeze every nickel out of its reported $205 million investment (before promotion and advertising) in yet another time-travel opus by Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception). Bumped by the multiplex-shuttering pandemic from its original worldwide opening date of July 17, Tenet is now set to open Aug. 26 in some 70 countries before hitting the U.S. Sept. 3 (the front edge of the Labor Day weekend) and China Sept. 4.

I get why our bread-and-circuses culture, deprived of our God-given parade of summer blockbusters, is trilling at seeing a shiny new special-effects extravaganza on a genuine big screen. For Northern Californians whose only venue to see Tenet will be drive-ins, and for any thoughtful filmgoer eager to visit futuristic worlds brimming with ambition, ideas and the ache of human connection, there’s a superior alternative.

Tesla
Opens Aug. 21
Streaming on demand

The quietly brilliant writer and director Michael Almereyda makes literate masterpieces like Experimenter, the 2015 drama starring Peter Saarsgard as social psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram. Yet he remains underrated and largely unknown, and I doubt that this clever and moving take on another scientist ahead of his time, Nikola Tesla, will land him on the late-night talk circuit. We’re all poorer for it, I say.

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After an eye-catching glimpse of an awkward Tesla (Ethan Hawke) roller-skating (the scene makes more sense when it is repeated later), the narrative begins in the mid-1880s with his six-month tenure at Edison Machine Works. Tesla is a precocious inventor, but sees himself less as a genius creating something out of nothing than someone channeling the existing energies and invisible forces of the natural world. This awareness of his place in the universe dovetails with his vision of applying science to make life easier for millions of people—a worldview that is some distance from contemporary perceptions of Tesla as either an idealist uninterested in money, a slavish devotee of pure science or a world-class disruptor sadly exploited and discarded.

Tesla’s under-control ego contrasts with the self-promotion of Edison (a pitch-perfect Kyle MacLachlan), the arch self-regard of financier J. Pierpont Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and the St. Bernard-like affability of George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). But unlike Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s excellent yet little-seen 2017 film, The Current War, Almereyda doesn’t present Tesla’s peers as villains. Every choice that Tesla makes, he owns.

Working with one percent of Nolan’s budget, Almereyda substitutes painted backdrops for location shoots that elegantly suggest how Tesla lives in his imagination—in his head, as Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), J.P.’s daughter, Tesla’s would-be suitor and the film’s narrator says. (He’s a germaphobe, too, which puts us in mind of Howard Hughes, another pioneering engineer/inventor whose grip slipped eventually.)

Almereyda references Google, iPhones and wi-fi, but he doesn’t reinvent Tesla as a Silicon Valley start-up wunderkind. Tesla is a man of his time (he’s fascinated with Sarah Bernhardt), and he is outside of time.

Tesla, in Ethan Hawke’s riveting, interior portrayal, is a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood figure who perpetually keeps his cards close to his chest. The apex of his performance, and the key to this beautiful movie, is his cryptic, deflecting reply when Anne Morgan asks him, “Is it better to be vindicated or loved?”

Desert One
Aug. 21
Streaming via local theaters

The average American knows just enough about Iran to fit on the head of a pin. And that piddling amount begins and ends with the hostages taken at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Barbara Kopple’s expertly crafted documentary, Desert One, is made for that average American, and presumes he or she likes a lot of flags and tears and the absolute minimum of historical context. Wouldn’t want to be controversial, would we?

In January, 1979, the dictatorial Shah skipped out of Iran with his life, his wife and millions in Swiss bank accounts. In November, students vented the pent-up wrath of the Islamic Revolution on the U.S. embassy—symbol of the Shah’s main abettor—and seized more than 60 Americans.

Desert One takes its name and its focus from the desolate location in Iran that the U.S. military picked to stage a covert rescue mission the following April. Blending archival footage, animation and contemporary interviews with key participants like hostage Kevin Hermening, Marine Lt. Col. Ed Seiffert and President Jimmy Carter, Kopple has crafted a satisfyingly suspenseful and moving reconstruction of the Delta Force operation.

Still from 'Desert One.' (Greenwich Entertainment)

Unfortunately, it is wrapped in a superficial overview of the entire 444-day hostage crisis. Desert One provides a snapshot of the pre-existing relationship between the two countries, going back to the U.S.-backed 1953 coup that ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the Shah in power. But because an Iranian national describes that key event, some people (OK, Fox News viewers) will discount or dismiss the U.S.’s involvement—which even President Richard Nixon acknowledged in a taped interview many years later. Why didn’t Kopple use that clip?

Possibly because the History network, which commissioned the doc, doesn’t want to rile its audience. If so, it’s a miracle that Kopple included one hostage’s belief (admittedly without evidence) that Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign played a role in delaying the hostages’ release all the way until one minute after Reagan was sworn in.

The investigation necessary to prove the existence of such a calculated, cynical strategy was clearly beyond the purview of this film. Where Desert One does not stumble is in acknowledging the heroism and sacrifice of the rescue team.

Coup 53
Aug. 19 only
BAMPFA and Roxie

Most of the dirty details of the overthrow of Mosaddegh are in Taghi Amirani and local legend Walter Murch’s years-in-production documentary, which would seemingly make it the ideal complement to Desert One. But the filmmakers test the viewer’s patience by turning the first hour into a self-congratulatory journey of discovery and detection revolving around Amirani’s hunt for documents and witnesses.

When they finally get to the coup, it’s essential history. The plot was conceived with Churchill’s OK after Mosaddegh nationalized Iranian oil production and threw out the British. President Truman was opposed, but the fervidly anti-Communist Eisenhower regime—in particular Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, director of the CIA—embraced the scheme.

Ralph Fiennes as Norman Darbyshire in 'Coup 53.' (Chris Morphet)

While the U.S. eventually admitted its participation (see Nixon, above), the stubborn British never have. Several books have shot holes in the U.K.’s denial, yet Amirani is obsessed with getting proof on camera. His Holy Grail is a stunningly candid interview conducted with the late MI6 operative Norman Darbyshire for a 1980s British TV series, End of Empire.

Amirani finds an uncut transcript of the interview, but Darbyshire—who planned, staffed and executed the coup—was cut out of the broadcast version 25 years ago. Various parties feign ignorance, suggesting a cover-up that carries into the present. The cinematic solution, proposed by Murch, is to cast Ralph Fiennes to play Darbyshire on camera. (Fiennes and Murch met many moons ago on The English Patient.)

It’s gimmicky but fun, for Fiennes is an exceedingly good actor. There’s also the delicious irony of the (fictional) head of MI6 (in the Bond films) spilling the beans on a covert operation. The film streams via the Roxie and BAMPFA Wednesday, Aug. 19 and the filmmakers and Fiennes will join in a Q&A via the Roxie on Thursday, Aug. 20.

Activists at Diablo Canyon in 'Dark Circle.' (Courtesy First Run Features)

Dark Circle
Opens Aug. 21
Metrograph

In a perfect world, the new restoration of Dark Circle would turn up when the outlook for the country’s—and the world’s—fortunes looked brighter. Released in 1982, when the massive dangers of the atomic age were well known, but before Chernobyl and Fukushima became household names, Bay Area filmmakers Judy Irving, Christopher Beaver and Ruth Landy’s documentary remains as horrifically mesmerizing as ever. An unforgettable, deeply sobering experience.

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