The writer and director Michael Almereyda is making some of the most thoughtful and inventive biographical dramas of any filmmaker working today.
He's fascinated by the lives of scientists and intellectuals, but rather than merely rattling off their accomplishments, he uses the medium of cinema itself to explore how their minds actually worked. A few years ago he directed Experimenter, a portrait of the controversial researcher Stanley Milgram that played its own sly psychological games with the audience.
Almereyda's new film, Tesla, is a quieter, moodier affair than Experimenter, but it has the same invigorating playfulness. It unfolds as a series of funny-sad vignettes from the life of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor who has often been relegated to a historical footnote—as the younger, hipper rival to Thomas Edison. But Tesla, played here by a superb Ethan Hawke, looms ever larger these days in the public imagination. He's been a character in novels, video games and quite a few movies, like The Current War and The Prestige, in which he was played by none other than David Bowie.
Tesla doesn't follow the usual cradle-to-the-grave biopic trajectory. There are oddball comic asides, like the scene where Tesla and Edison attack each other with ice-cream cones; needless-to-say, the movie tells us, that didn't really happen. Sometimes a narrator interrupts the action to run Google searches on the characters, a nifty little fact-checking device that also underscores the story's relevance. It connects Tesla, a pioneer in the field of wireless communications, directly to the internet technology we use today.
Aside from the occasional leaps forward and backward, the movie is told in mostly chronological order. It begins in the 1880s, not long after Tesla, who was born in what is now Croatia, has emigrated to New York City. There, he gets a job working for Edison, played with snappish wit and a rich vein of melancholy by Kyle MacLachlan.