Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Tesla

Here’s what’s true and what’s artistic license in the new Nikola Tesla biopic starring Ethan Hawke.

Nikola Tesla and Ethan Hawke.
Nikola Tesla and Ethan Hawke. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Unknown/Wikipedia and IFC Films.

Tesla, the new movie about Nikola Tesla written and directed by Michael Almereyda, reuniting the Hamlet filmmaker with Ethan Hawke, is the most detailed cinematic treatment of the life of the eccentric inventor so far. Tesla’s career—visionary work with alternating current, followed by decades of bold claims that rarely panned out—is tailor-made to inspire urban legends, but Almereyda sticks to reputable sources, and for all its metatextual gimmicks, his film is an attempt at a biography or character sketch, not an exercise in myth-building. Still, the movie invents some scenes, rearranges many events, and raises as many questions as it answers. Below, we’ve consulted multiple biographies of Tesla and Thomas Edison, the engineers’ own articles, and several other sources to sort out how Tesla compares with the historical record.

Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke)

Tesla is built around Hawke’s performance as the brooding inventor, but it’s not a cradle-to-grave portrait: Almereyda covers Tesla’s life between 1884, when he went to work for Thomas Edison, and 1905 or so, when his research at Wardenclyffe Tower in New York came to an end. The film is stuffed to the gills with Tesla facts, and those facts are more or less accurate, but the real focus is interior.

Hawke’s Tesla is brilliant but psychologically tortured, suffering from some combination of what we might now call germaphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, in addition to many other peculiar troubles for which we might not have diagnoses even now. All of this checks out. In an autobiographical sketch Tesla published in Electrical Experimenter in February 1919, Tesla wrote of his “many strange likes, dislikes, and habits,” noting, “I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver” and “All repeated acts or operations I performed had to be divisible by three and if I mist I felt impelled to do it all over again, even if it took hours.” He also wrote of “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” saying, “The sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.” If anything, Hawke underplays Tesla’s tics and maladies, although we do see him reacting violently to a string of pearls.

Tesla is unusual in that it also dramatizes one of the less visible aspects of his personality: his visual imagination, to which Tesla credited much of his skill at invention. In Tesla, this manifests in two ways: occasional conversations with people who are not there and intrusions from the modern world of electrical conveniences (and inconveniences) Tesla helped usher in.

As for Tesla’s sexuality and his personal life, the details have been lost to history, occasionally on purpose. As Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson reports, one member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, in a 1956 interview, applauded this historical amnesia for the sake of the AIEE, since it would bury Tesla’s “reputation for voyeurism which was embarrassing to the older members.” The AIEE member didn’t get specific, but he did say, “The stories of Tesla’s sexual episodes were at one time the talk of the Institute” and, “You must be aware, of course, that he never went out with women.”

In other words, the biopic, which leaves it ambiguous whether Tesla was gay, bisexual, asexual, or some other orientation altogether, accurately reflects the fuzziness of the historical record. Similarly, Tesla really did have a very close friendship with his fellow engineer Anthony Szigeti, who traveled with him to Paris and then to New York, and Szigeti really did invent a nautical compass that Tesla informed him had already been independently developed by Sir William Thomson, but whether the relationship was more than platonic remains unclear. Tesla also had a later close friendship with Spanish-American War hero Richmond Pearson Hobson, though that’s not seen in the film. Any attraction to actress Sarah Bernhardt, meanwhile, seems less likely: His first biographer and friend John O’Neill maintained women were “all double duds to him.”

Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan)

Thomas Edison and Kyle MacLachlan. MacLachlan is holding what appears to be a lightbulb.
Thomas Edison and Kyle MacLachlan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Vizu/Wikipedia and IFC Films.

Edison’s rivalry with Tesla is an enormous part of most pop-culture portraits of the two men, and one of the trickiest things for Tesla to navigate. This Drunk History episode is a classic example of the conventional framing, in which Tesla is the hero and Edison the villain:

Tesla treats the relationship with slightly more nuance, while still providing a certain amount of Tesla fan service. The movie references the popular notion, for instance, that Edison cheated Tesla out of $50,000. This has been extrapolated from a passage in one of Tesla’s articles in the magazine Electrical Experimenter about his time working for Edison, in which an unnamed “Manager” does promise that sum but later claims it to be “a practical joke,” but “the Manager” in that passage is not necessarily (or even probably) Thomas Edison. Still, it’d make for a better story if it were, so that’s usually how it’s presented.

We first meet Tesla’s Edison telling his employees a story about the death of his childhood friend George Lockwood, and it’s much how the real Edison remembered it 50 years after the fact:

When I was a small boy at Milan, and about five years old, I and the son of the proprietor of the largest store in the town, whose age was about the same as mine, went down in a gully on the outskirts of the town to swim in a small creek. After playing in the water a while, the boy with me disappeared in a creek. I waited around for him to come up but as it was getting dark I concluded to wait no longer and went home. Some time in the night I was awakened and asked about the boy. It seems the whole town was out with lanterns and had heard that I was last seen with him. I told them how I had waited and waited, etc. They went to the creek and pulled out his body.

You can find a lot of MacLachlan’s detached performance in that passage, and most of the rest of it in Edison’s reaction to the death of his first wife, Mary Stilwell Edison. The circumstances of her death are slightly murky, but the most likely cause was an accidental morphine overdose. Edison’s feelings about his first wife’s death are murkier than its causes: He almost never spoke about her after she died, although biographer Edmund Morris notes that that wasn’t unusual: “Henry Adams and Theodore Roosevelt and the other dumbstruck widowers of the time” acted similarly.

Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller Edison, shows up more or less true to life in Tesla, although her and her husband’s meet cute is slightly altered for the screen. The film shows Mina asking Edison to teach her Morse code, which he is supposed to have used to propose to her. This is charming but also compatible with Tesla’s portrait of Edison as a cold fish. What actually happened at their first meeting was that Mina played piano horribly and sang off-key, which sparked Edison’s curiosity because, as he later put it, “I could not help being interested immediately in anyone who would play and sing without hesitation, when they did it as badly as that.” That’d be a funnier and slightly more human Edison than a Tesla biopic can probably support, but Tesla gets points for giving him any private life at all.

Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson)

Anne Morgan and Eve Hewson, both with large hats. Morgan is holding a dog by the collar.
Anne Morgan and Eve Hewson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Library of Congress and IFC Films.

Anne Morgan serves as the film’s narrator and delivers a large part of the exposition, and whenever she’s in that role, the facts of her life are treated extremely loosely: She did not have a Mac laptop or hang out at Tesla’s experimental station in Colorado Springs comparing the number of Google search results for various historical figures.

In her non-narrator role, she’s closer to the real thing, although her feelings for Tesla are probably exaggerated. In Margaret Cheney’s 1981 biography Tesla: Man out of Time, she mentions a rumor circulating that Anne Morgan had a schoolgirl crush on Tesla as well as another report that she “threw herself” at him. The film’s Anne Morgan seems to have been extrapolated from those clues, but if Tesla broke Morgan’s heart in the real world as he does in the film, there’s not much in the historical record about it. The movie also gives a glimpse of Morgan’s post-Tesla life in France with Bessie Marbury, a detail that suggests that perhaps Tesla was not the love of her life. (Marbury was gay, and it seems Morgan was as well.)

George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan)

George Westinghouse and Jim Gaffigan, both with very large, bushy mustaches.
George Westinghouse and Jim Gaffigan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joseph G. Gessford/Library of Congress and IFC Films.

George Westinghouse’s business dealings with Tesla are accurately depicted in Tesla, with a few allowances for dramatic compression. It’s true, as the film shows, that when Westinghouse ran into financial troubles, his backers asked him to terminate his contract with Tesla. It’s also true that Tesla supposedly tore up the contract himself, out of loyalty to Westinghouse. It’s not true, however, that J.P. Morgan was behind these machinations. The movie only has room for one avatar for rapacious capitalism, but in real life it was August Belmont. Also, Westinghouse’s bid to provide AC power at the Chicago Columbian Exposition wasn’t hanging in the balance. The biggest thing Tesla gets right that many fictional portraits get wrong is that Westinghouse, not Tesla, was Edison’s opponent in the war of the currents, the business and PR battle over the safest and most practical electrical format for home and industrial use.

The Execution of William Kemmler (Blake DeLong)

A montage structured around the execution of William Kemmler stands in for most of the war of the currents. Kemmler, a peddler who killed his wife with a hatchet, was the first person ever scheduled to be executed in an electric chair, and that chair was going to run on Westinghouse’s alternating current. Kemmler’s lawyers appealed, saying it was cruel and unusual punishment, and Westinghouse, sensing an impending PR disaster, helped fund his defense. Edison testified in the case—his dialogue in this sequence of Tesla comes straight from the court transcripts—and Kemmler lost the appeal. His execution was a fiasco. (In the movie, his character reads aloud from the New York Times’ account.) Suffice it to say they eventually succeeded in cooking Kemmler’s brain.

J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz)

J.P. Morgan and Donnie Keshawarz.
J.P. Morgan and Donnie Keshawarz. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by XIX century/Wikipedia and IFC Films.

The facts of John Pierpont Morgan’s life, as shown in Tesla, are accurate. He invested $150,000 in Tesla’s research at Wardenclyffe, then cut Tesla off when his experiments didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Tesla wrote him a series of letters asking for more funds and making increasingly grandiose claims about his research, to no effect, and some of the text of these letters shows up verbatim in the script.

Still, the most important question Tesla raises about J.P. Morgan is a simple one. Just how deformed was his nose, anyway? Super-duper deformed, it turns out! Morgan suffered from rhinophyma, a severe form of rosacea that causes a red, bumpy, and bulbous nose, a condition he managed to keep out of his official portraits and photographs. If you’d like to learn more about J.P. Morgan’s nose, check out Karl Smallwood’s article “J.P. Morgan and His Giant, Knobbly, Purple Nose,” which may or may not be the best research on the topic but is definitely the best headline.

Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan)

Sarah Bernhardt and Rebecca Dayan.
Sarah Bernhardt and Rebecca Dayan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by
Napoleon Sarony /Library of Congress and IFC Films.

Actress Sarah Bernhardt is depicted more or less faithfully in Tesla in terms of the broad details of her life—she really did sleep in that coffin!—but her connections with both Tesla and Edison have been exaggerated a little. She really did visit Edison at Menlo Park in 1880, as seen in the film, where she made a recording on Edison’s then–state-of-the-art tinfoil phonograph, though its exact contents are unknown. (In Tesla, she is seen reciting lines from a 1998 translation of Phèdre into a wax cylinder recorder. That recording exists, but it’s in French.)

As for Bernhardt’s connections with Tesla, there is a rumor she once dropped a handkerchief at Tesla’s feet, and that he returned it without recognizing her and continued his conversation. Tesla knew her socially in the 1890s and attended at least one party she threw, although he didn’t have an awkward run-in with Edison there. Later in the film, Bernhardt meets with Tesla in Colorado while on “her second worldwide farewell tour—or was it her third?” according to Anne Morgan’s voice-over, but this never happened. (She performed in Colorado on a farewell tour, but years after Tesla left.) Meanwhile, her thoughts about love—“Suppose you had to cut your head off and give it to someone else. What difference would it make? This is what love is like”—come from Robert Bly’s 1976 translation of the work of 15th-century poet Kabir. Like Tesla, she truly was ahead of her time!

Tears for Fears

British pop band Tears for Fears was formed in 1981 by musicians Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, both of whom were born in 1961, 18 years after Tesla’s death. By the time the band released their smash hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” he’d been dead for more than four decades, which makes it unlikely that Tesla ever heard the song, much less performed an off-key karaoke version of it, as he does in Tesla.