© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Tesla': A Movie About An Underrated Genius Who Challenged Edison


And now it's time to talk about Tesla - the man, not the car. Nikola Tesla was the underrated genius who bested Thomas Edison in figuring out how to power the world with electricity. But he died penniless. Now he's the subject of a biopic that critic Bob Mondello says is as eccentric as Tesla himself.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1884 - a power outage, and Nikola Tesla is fuming in the dark in the one place on the planet you'd think would not need candles.


ETHAN HAWKE: (As Nikola Tesla) I'm finding my way at Edison's Machine Works, where there's always too much to do, not enough time, never enough money or men. Edison talks to everyone but isn't capable of listening. He has no interest in my motor. You know the proverb - nothing grows in the shadow of an oak.

MONDELLO: Tesla chafes at being paid $15 a week to redesign Edison's electric motors when he's had an idea that's demonstrably more efficient but requires alternating current; Edison favors direct current.


KYLE MACLACHLAN: (As Thomas Edison) Alternating current is a waste of time - impractical and deadly. There's no future in it.

MONDELLO: So far so standard for a biopic - period costumes, dim lighting. But you'll note one oddity in the scene - the actors are both licking ice-cream cones.


MACLACHLAN: (As Edison) Tesla, you don't understand the American sense of humor.

MONDELLO: As if to disprove that, Tesla smashes his cone into Edison's chest. Edison does it back. Then they smash their ice cream into each other's faces.


EVE HEWSON: (As Anne Morgan) This is, pretty surely, not how it happened.

MONDELLO: That's Anne Morgan, daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, sitting in 1880s finery at her laptop.


HEWSON: (As Anne) If you Google Nikola Tesla, you get 34 million results. But for images, there are mostly just three or four photographs repeated over and over. They get flipped around. Some are colorized or photoshopped with lightning in the background. But it's basically just four pictures. Beyond that, things get murky and more imaginative.

MONDELLO: Murky and more imaginative is a decent description of the rest of the movie they're in. Writer-director Michael Almereyda is always an unorthodox storyteller, and here he uses anachronisms, techno music, all kinds of visual weirdness to highlight the other liberties he's taking - Kyle MacLachlan's Thomas Edison, say, bragging about a new gadget he's come up with.


MACLACHLAN: (As Edison) Kinetoscope - moving pictures. Everybody will like that.

MONDELLO: Then as soon as the camera focuses elsewhere, pulling a cellphone from his pocket, as Anne - played by Eve Hewson - points out that the scene he's just played never happened, all in the service of a story in which a brilliant but painfully unassertive inventor gets bullied and taken advantage of by significantly less brilliant folks with names you know.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Westinghouse. George Westinghouse

MONDELLO: Legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was rumored to have dallied with Tesla in real life, also puts in an appearance - dying elegantly to applause in the theatrical glow of alternating current, as her eyes search the crowd for the guy who made that glow possible.


MONDELLO: Amid all the cinematic tricks and showy performances, Ethan Hawke gives us a deliberately low-voltage Tesla.


HAWKE: (As Tesla) The best machine is the one with the fewest parts.

MONDELLO: Never once raising his voice, even in moments of frustration or anger. It's an intriguing approach. The inventor who literally electrified the 1893 Chicago World's Fair proved an enigma in his own time, and the film "Tesla" has opted to make him an enigma in ours. His story - rags to riches to rags. His persona alternating - you should pardon the expression - between supercharged intellect and short-circuited emotions.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.