Look, I am here for any and all Tesla content. I will watch, read, listen to, consume anything relating even tangentially to Nikola Tesla. He is one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, and we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of thinking about maybe someday fully appreciating everything Tesla did—and tried to do—for us as a species. But I am not 100% on board with a new vision of Tesla coming from filmmaker Michael Almereyda, mainly because Ethan Hawke is the wrong guy to play Tesla, but also a little bit because it looks like Almereyda’s non-traditional biopic envisions Tesla as some kind of seducer. Nikola Tesla, the ur-incel, was hardly a worldly man in that regard.
There is a lot I like about the trailer for Tesla. I am SUPER into Kyle MacLachlan doing anything, let alone playing a figure like Edison. MacLachlan’s idiosyncratic style, which always just buries an edge of cruelty, is PERFECT for a historical villain like Edison (he was a total bag of dicks who took all the credit for a bunch of sh-t he did not do). And I like the blend of modern technology in a historical biopic—more biopics should approach their subjects with invention and flair, not stodgy, dusty “great man” tropes, and the combination of authentic period era with modern technology is especially suited to Tesla, a man who envisioned a fantastical future of free, unlimited energy and innovation.
What I object to is this notion that Tesla went around smiling suggestively at women. It is true that many women were attracted to Tesla, a tall, well-dressed man who idealized his mother and spoke on the record about the unlimited potential of the female intellect, which he believed would one day surpass men. But Tesla also berated a secretary for dressing too nicely, and he had a very narrow definition of what passed for an “acceptable” woman (thin, neatly dressed but not stylish, academic and not “frivolous”). Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson in this film), for instance, did not pass muster because she wore pearls. On the one hand, Tesla was complimentary of women’s potential; on the other hand, he had an almost pathological aversion to women.
Some give the Tesla the benefit of the doubt, because he never said anything hateful on the record, and because he truly did believe that women were undergoing an intellectual awakening in the 19th century which would have staggering repercussions for the world. The less generous read, though, is that while Tesla understood the potential of women in the laboratory, he also saw women as a distraction, a limitation on the inventive mind, and that unless they met his extremely stringent set of rules, they were not worth considering as equals. Tesla was progressive for his day, but he also wanted absolutely nothing to do with women in his personal life, so I’m not sold on this notion of Tesla the ladies’ man. “Sexy Tesla” is fundamentally missing his complicated relationship with women and where we really stood in his life.