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How Tesla Punctures the Myth of the Tech Genius

Michael Almereyda’s movie dismantles romantic notions about creativity, invention, and making money.

Courtesy of IFC Films

The key scene in Michael Almereyda’s biopic Tesla finds Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) humbling himself in the dimly lit chamber of robber baron J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). The inventor has come, cap in hand, seeking funds for his wireless transmission experiments, which he believes can unlock the ability to zap telegrams, phone calls, and even early fax messages anywhere on the planet, radically remodeling the world in the process. Morgan, for his part, seems to recognize only the prospective business applications: the ability to instantly contact his far-off fleet of steamships or receive stock quotes from anywhere in the world. He cuts Tesla a fat check for $100,000, all the while cutting him down for his boastfulness and proven inability to return on investments. Tesla cowers, gulping heavily, visibly swallowing his pride.

Almereyda stages this face-off with great restraint. Whereas much of Tesla playfully deploys old-timey rear-projections and deliberately theatrical stagings, this showdown unfolds in Morgan’s lavish Wall Street offices, a bracing bit of realism among the film’s bric-a-brac aesthetic of postmodern pastiche. And Morgan—afflicted in real life by a bulbous, disfigured nose described by E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime as “a strawberry of the award-winning giant type”—is no glowering gargoyle. He is forthright and curt, exuding the confidence of the first man to ever amass a billion dollars.

In a final insult, Morgan looks into Tesla’s eyes, meeting him on his own terms. “You and I have much in common,” he intones, matter-of-factly. “I believe in higher reality. I believe in the recklessness of great men.” Tesla, who believes the virtue of his rare intellect separates him from crass moneymen like Morgan, seems mortified. It’s not enough for Morgan to essentially install Tesla in his pocket. He has the gall to rob him of his ideals, too. There is no private passion, nothing sacred, that cannot be accumulated by a man with deep enough coffers. Like Hawke’s Tesla, the viewer is left disquieted, stripped of the belief that the fiercely independent creative genius possesses some arcane knowledge, a perspective that the moneyman cannot fathom. The twist here is that it’s Tesla who lacks what his patron possesses in abundance.

Nikola Tesla occupies a curious place in America’s imaginary. A prodigious inventor halfway between modest tinkerer and mad scientist, Tesla’s name, story, and image have been lent to everything from pulp fiction to hair metal bands to, perhaps most notably, billionaire Elon Musk’s electrified luxury cars. Born in Smiljan in modern-day Croatia, he worked as an engineer for Thomas Edison’s companies (first in Paris and later in New York), struggled to secure patents and funding for his increasingly far-out ideas—including the wireless electric transmission technology, a motor powered by high-energy extraterrestrial protons and a “death ray” conceived as a deterrent against Hitler—and died penniless in a New York City hotel following a nervous breakdown.

Tesla’s is a rags-to-riches-to-rags-again fable. He is, almost as a matter of course, spoken of in hyperbole that borders on the comical. “On the basis of his hopes, his dreams, and his achievements,” writes biographer James O’Neill in 1944’s Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, “he rated the status of the Olympian gods, and the Greeks would have so enshrined him.” In Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, David Bowie played Tesla as a master of the physical universe enslaved to his obsessions, an inspired bit of casting that drew a straight line between the actor’s well-known eccentricity and his character. It’s another comforting characterization: It holds that Tesla’s imagination was somehow incorruptible, so he could only be undone by that genius, impervious as it was to forces operating outside of it. Tesla looms above the pettier, terrestrial concerns of financing and royalties. A man who can conjure electricity from thin air isn’t particularly worried about keeping the lights on.

This new film offers a corrective to those notions. Narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P. and confidant to Tesla, it frequently interrupts and comments on itself. When an argument between Tesla and Edison (the lantern-jawed Kyle MacLachlan) explodes and two men begin jabbing each other with ice cream cones, Anne interrupts to make clear that that’s probably not what actually happened. She produces a modern-day laptop to pull up images of Edison and Tesla as a way of speaking to their respective legacies. Online images of Edison abound, while Tesla’s likeness is limited to a seemingly infinite reworking of the same four photos. “Beyond that,” Anne notes, “things get murkier and more imaginative.”

Tesla is very much a product of this murk and of Almereyda’s imagination. As in his 2000 take on Hamlet, which recasts Shakespeare’s dithering hero (Ethan Hawke, incidentally) as an experimental filmmaker contemplating suicide in the Action aisle of a Blockbuster Video, Almereyda’s aim is not to aggrandize his source material but to diminish it. Truly unpredictable in both its construction and its conjuration of indelible images—a dream sequence late in the film sees Hawke, in character, meekly crooning 80s pop standard “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” into a karaoke microphone—Tesla feels like it’s being invented, and reinvented, as it goes along.

Unlike Bowie’s Tesla, Hawke’s character is impoverished, quixotic, and woefully out-of-step with the financial realities of the age. His wild dreams, as a colleague puts it, “lack funding.” His seeming contempt for money is contrasted with the attitudes of his rival, Edison, whose intellect is more amenable to investors and more attuned to the emerging realities of financial capitalism. While Edison grabs newspaper headlines with widely publicized demonstrations of his electrical system (including electrocutions of horses, elephants, and the first death row inmate legally offed by electric chair), Tesla is reduced to demonstrating his technology in private drawing rooms full of bourgeois old ladies, like a traveling entertainer. In one sequence, he tears up a royalty deal with entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), cozy in the belief that the widespread adoption of his polyphase alternating current system will prove more rewarding for his reputation than any dividends produced by its implementation. He is, in a word, incorrect.

In the tragic conclusion, Tesla is forced to stalk his patron, J.P. Morgan, confronting him from behind the fence of an outdoor tennis court. Tesla desperately attempts to pitch the tycoon on increasingly cockamamie inventions (his death ray, a machine that can photograph thoughts, etc.) while Anne looks on, embarrassed. “I’m not a vagabond, come to beg,” he insists. But that’s just how he appears. He is not above anything. All humility, all dignity, is gone. It’s revealed that Morgan paid Tesla only as much as he paid for a few oil paintings to furnish his stately chamber. For the financier, Tesla’s genius was little more than another exploitable commodity. “Do not let yourself be intimidated by the horror of the world,” Morgan sneers, his nose aflame like a mood ring.

Almereyda—himself an artist whose work has, by and large, eluded mainstream success—understands that the relationship between capital and genius is intrinsically adversarial despite any appearances to the contrary. The promise of shared profit between the venture capitalist and the entrepreneur is a myth. For men like Morgan (who snatches up geniuses like works of art) or Westinghouse (who rips them off with a self-effacing, aww-shucks smile), men like Tesla are mere means to the end of lining their own already padded pockets. A $100,000 expenditure is, to the investor, an acceptable loss. To the inventor? It’s life-ruining.

In our current culture, the antagonism between creatives and capital is softened by entertainments like Shark Tank, ABC’s weekly, hour-long infomercial for capitalism itself, which plops aspiring entrepreneurs in front of a dais of wealthy investors and forces them to sing for their supper. There’s a David and Goliath vibe that’s only ruptured when a good pitch and the accompanying promise of shared profit draws together all the stands of self-interest swirling through the Tank. Deals are seen as mutually beneficial, sealed with a handshake or, commonly, a hug. No one needs to get exploited around here. The format presents a showcase for the warm fuzzies but is nonetheless totally submerged in what Marx would call “the chill waters of selfish calculation.”

Tesla has himself become a poster child for the myth of the good capitalist innovator—his namesake lent to electric cars, clean energy concerns, and even Elon Musk’s branded agave liquor (“Teslaquila”), which ran afoul of Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council. The inventor’s historical marginalization has rendered him something of a cult figure for wannabe whiz-kids who admire him much as one might admire a musician who valiantly refused to “sell out.” As O’Neill writes, the Tesla name “became synonymous with magic in the intellectual, scientific, engineering, and social worlds.” This is the image typically invoked, whether by fawning biographers or tech-bro CEOs: more magician than engineer, more god than man. A life marked by professional calamity and poverty is reclaimed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Musk, who have more in common with J.P. Morgan than Tesla himself.

Over an intimate dinner, Almereyda has Anne Morgan put the question to Tesla point-blank: “Are dreams and intelligence enough to save the world?” He flatters the perceptiveness of the line of inquiry, evading an answer in the process. Almereyda, likewise, leaves such questions dangling, open-ended. Countless American entertainments obsessing over the moral wages of wealth and power—The Great Gatsby, The Godfather trilogy, David Fincher’s The Social Network—depict the individual’s relationship with capital as a struggle in which one can only gain the world at the expense of their soul. Almereyda’s film is more thoughtful and ambivalent. His Tesla is a little naive and a little bitter, both proud and stupid enough to believe that his financial failures speak for, and not against, his own brilliance. Ultimately, he is not so much ahead of his time as outside of it, a loner and compulsive ill at ease with the modern world he helped spark into existence.

Almereyda restores to Tesla the high ideals plundered by the contemporary techno-robber barons while also questioning their inherent value. This is a man who, the film insists, dreamt of nothing short of illuminating the darkest corners of the world, of lifting the dispossessed out of poverty, of engineering a transformation in society. “All values, and all human relations, will be profoundly modified.” Such utopianism may indeed be noble. But, Tesla warns, it resolves invariably into tragedy. It is not enough to want to change the world when everybody wants to rule it.