It is a David and Goliath story for the Industrial Age.
Young, idealistic Nikola Tesla came to the United States in 1884 hoping that electricity mogul Thomas Edison would work with him on a new system for generating and distributing electricity. Tesla’s alternating current system promised to transmit electricity much greater distances than the reigning direct current setup that Edison had pioneered. But Edison dismissed Tesla’s ideas as impractical, forcing Tesla to strike out on his own.
The new biopic Tesla, directed by Michael Almereyda, follows what came to be known as the War of the Currents between Tesla and Edison. The film premieres August 21, available on demand through a variety of cable and digital platforms.
Tesla (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) is the underdog hero. He lacks Edison’s business acumen and penchant for self-promotion, but is armed with a visionary idea and relentless ambition. To make his electrical system a reality, Tesla struggles against duplicitous business partners and a smear campaign by Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) to cast alternating current as unsafe. In one macabre scene, one of Edison’s employees goes so far as to publicly electrocute a dog with alternating current.
Ultimately, Tesla’s system wins out as the preeminent means of electrical production and distribution worldwide. (Although the film doesn’t explain in detail, AC has an edge over DC electricity because it is easily switched between high and low voltages. That allows high-voltage electricity to travel efficiently across long power lines before getting converted to low voltages for safe in-home use.)
Almereyda’s Tesla is a modest man, more concerned with using his inventions for good than earning money or recognition. But Tesla also explores the less flattering aspects of the inventor’s character. His reclusiveness and overactive mind made it difficult to maintain relationships. One of Tesla’s most loyal associates was Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P. Morgan, the Wall Street titan who was a patron of Tesla’s work. Anne Morgan was drawn to Tesla’s intellect and altruism, and seemed to want to marry him. But Tesla was married to his work, and ultimately moved to Colorado without Morgan to pursue mysterious, lightning-powered experiments. Thus began the second act of Tesla’s career, during which he chased increasingly outlandish ideas that scared off investors and left him destitute (SN: 7/7/56).
Morgan occasionally breaks the fourth wall to narrate Tesla’s story, as though she were reflecting on it from a modern perspective, armed with a laptop and projector to display visuals. The film also invokes other unusual storytelling elements, such as playing out alternative scenes to explore what might have been. Some of these what-if scenarios are intriguing, like one where Edison admits he misjudged Tesla and suggests they become an electrical engineering dynamic duo. Some of these scenes are just whacky, such as when Tesla smashes an ice cream cone into Edison’s face during an argument. (“This is pretty surely not how it happened,” Morgan narrates.)
Such quirks are off-putting at times, but overall, Tesla is a lot like its namesake: introspective, intriguing and oddly charming.