August 18th, 2020
STARRING: ETHAN HAWKE; EVE HEWSON; KYLE MCLACHLAN; JIM GAFFIGAN
DIRECTED BY: MICHAEL ALMEREYDA
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
I have watched plenty of biopics during my time as a film critic and I’ve noticed that it does not take much for me to respect when this type of narrative does something different. Tesla might be the most different of the biopics I have seen in some time. Nothing about director Michael Almereyda’s film is cliche. It’s a bit strange, telling the life of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) and his battle with Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan) in the industry of electricity, and what exactly drove him to be the visionary that he was. There’s a constant, languid pace to this telling, a focus on the mind of a man, and the difficult pressure of being an innovator. Tesla is the eclectic and electric kind of biopic.
The narrative is not a complete telling of who Tesla was, but a large grip of his most prominent times. We initially meet him in 1888, working in one of Thomas Edison’s labs, conversing with the legendary inventor, but quietly disagreeing with his take on the safety of alternating current. The world is at a time of advancement, change, and these two men are in direct competition, but instead of focusing on a back and forth of the minds, Almereyda places the focus on Tesla working behind it all. The specific focal point is his relationship with J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson), her affection for Tesla, and his unwillingness to accept the help of others to lift him off the ground. There’s an essence of a Nicolas Winding Refn or Terrance Malick cinematic approach. It’s a needling look into the mind of a man that was incredibly hard to read and with a mysterious performance from Hawke, Tesla left me in awe of a man that deserves more praise than ever.
One of the aspects of Tesla that had me shocked, was an ability to stay in the moments and also step out of them. The settings, costume design, score, and cinematography- including a cool use of neon backlighting- are all top-notch. Those technical aspects keep us in the time period, while the narrative has various moments where a character looks at a cell phone, Anne narrates with a laptop in front of her, or mentions what results you get from a Nikola Tesla Google search. It’s a constant reminder of why everything that these men, specifically Tesla, had achieved, or attempted to achieve, was important. And as we learn of the path that Tesla had to take to breakthrough in his industry, his success becomes more commendable.
The third act of Tesla is where his gains grow and the world embraces his invention of light with alternating current. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago would set things a glow, with Tesla and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) placing their lighting systems around the exposition, which catapulted Tesla into the history books of inventors. The portrayal of Tesla achieving these feats is done so in a calm way by Ethan Hawke, someone who is no stranger to portraying a historic figure. His work in Tesla is similar to his excellent performance in Born to Be Blue or Adopt a Highway, where his acting is not method, but it’s separate from who he is. There is a quiet reservation, a measured decision made in every scene, revealing a man who was tortured on the inside and outside, all from the pressure to make a name for himself.
And the final praise for Tesla has to go towards director Michael Almereyda, who set out to make something entirely different from anything else we have seen. It’s interesting to compare Tesla to a movie such as Bohemian Rhapsody or Theory of Everything, because the styles are nothing alike. That difference becomes evident in an ending which features a rendition of Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” sung by Hawke as Tesla, which is both jarring, sweet, and right in step with Tesla’s different approach to life. At the most, Tesla succeeds at creating an incredibly artistic spark. Seek it out and become illuminated.
TESLA IS AVAILABLE ON DEMAND FROM IFC FILMS AUGUST 21ST
Written by: Leo Brady