Tesla (United States, 2020)

August 22, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Tesla Poster

Two things become apparent when watching writer/director Michael Almereyda’s chronicle of the life of inventor Nikola Tesla. The first is that Almereyda wasn’t interested in making a straightforward, by-the-numbers biopic. By employing a collage-like approach and incorporating a variety of visual flourishes (some of which work better than others), he wants his characters to engage audiences in ways that wouldn’t be possible if he appeared to be adapting Tesla’s Wikipedia entry. The second is that the filmmaker has chosen not to represent Tesla using the “eccentric, kooky” caricature often applied to the engineer. Instead, with ample help from lead actor Ethan Hawke, he has crafted an obsessed, borderline-tragic figure whose final plea to billionaire J.P. Morgan is heartbreaking.

Putting aside its unconventional aspects (more about those later), Tesla offers a portrait of the late-19th/early 20th century inventor with special attention on the years between 1884 (when he emigrated to the United States and began working for Thomas Edison) and 1905 (when his Wardenclyffe Tower project, financed by J.P. Morgan, collapsed). Although the movie covers some of the same material as last year’s The Current War (in which Tesla was played by Nicholas Hoult), the emphasis is different. Tesla is more interested in the person than the inventor and, to that end, it focuses on his partially fictionalized interaction with four real-life people: Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan, playing it straight), J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and performer Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan).

If one was to extract almost any individual scene from Tesla, it might seem like an ordinary sequence from a straightforward bio-pic. There are, however, numerous tweaks that Almereyda applies to keep the movie from feeling like a retread. The movie is narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), J.P.’s daughter. She’s a minor character who makes occasional appearances, functioning almost like a conscience to the inventor. (In real life, she allegedly was in love with him – an emotion that was not reciprocated.) Anne narrates from a futuristic place-out-of-time, explaining that Tesla remains popular in the 21st century and citing the number of Google hits as proof (Edison, however, has more). The movie also offers fanciful fictitious scenes such as one where Tesla and Edison duel with ice cream cones and another where they reconcile at the Chicago World’s Fair. Anne keeps it real: “This is pretty surely not how it happened.” Perhaps the most bizarre scene of all is when Tesla grabs a mic and sings the Tears for Fears ‘80s anthem, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Artistic merit marries budgetary necessity on several occasions. Lacking the funding to mount expensive re-creations of 1900 locations, Almereyda uses several time-honored cinematic techniques: photographic backdrops and rear-screen projections. He does so in a manner that intentionally highlights their artificiality. There are other anachronisms as well, including iPhones and roller skates.

Ethan Hawke, who previously worked with Almereyda on the director’s 2000 modern-day New York City version of Hamlet, creates a character who is uncomfortable in his own skin. Tesla is brimming with ideas and inventions – some brilliant, some unworkable, some bonkers – and, as a result, he has no time for the niceties of normal human interaction. Many times, Hawke plays the character as slightly befuddled – as if he can’t understand why things that are clear to him aren’t as obvious to everyone else. His reaction to J.P. Morgan’s final refusal, which happens on a tennis court immediately before “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” is wrenching – a reminder of how good Hawke can be given the right circumstances.

When Almereyda wrote his first treatment of the Tesla screenplay (in 1982 for Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), the world was a different place. The wireless communication that Tesla postulated had not yet become ubiquitous. The very name “Tesla” was somewhat obscure and remained that way until Elon Musk branded it. Although Almereyda may have found the script to be a hard sell for four decades, commercial viability has arrived at last for the eccentric who spent long stretches of his life in squalor.

Those who prefer their bio-pics to unspool like history books chapters may at times be unimpressed by Tesla, which is more interested in applying non-standard cinematic tactics to enliven the facts rather than being enslaved by them. It’s an arthouse production made with arthouse audiences in mind but I found it to be a more compelling experience than the equally “important” (but entirely too safe) Radioactive, which played in the same general historical era with less zest.

Tesla (United States, 2020)

Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, David Kallaway, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan
Home Release Date: 2021-02-02
Screenplay: Michael Almereyda
Cinematography: Sean Price Williams
Music: John Paesano
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2020-08-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Distrubing Content, Nude Images)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1