Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jim Gaffigan, Kyle MacLachlan
Biopics have their formula and most people don’t mind because it portrays the moments of hardships of an aspirational figure but then always comes together with high peaks of euphoria by the end. They allow for a look at someone’s life even with the basic road strokes-approach they typically utilize. When an unconventional biopic comes around seeking to add an interesting twist, it becomes noticeable and with all of its strangeness, Tesla remains intriguing throughout which is all I can ask for.
Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) always had a vision for what could be accomplished using electricity, which had him initially working with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Branching out on his own, Tesla uses alternating current to create electrical outputs many did not think was possible but repeatedly shows not to be as astute in the financial or relational realm.
Certainly not conventional in the slightest, Tesla contains a character in the story speaking directly to the audience delivering tidbits of information in a modern scope. It occurs with Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), who serves as a character in the story and the narrator. The first instance where she appears as the narrator has her in the clothing of the film’s era but speaking with a modern MacBook Pro right in front of her. The story of Tesla and the battle for electricity has been told plenty of times with various films like The Prestige and The Current War throwing their hat in the ring this century. Tesla looks upon the battle for electricity superiority, but it remains fixated on Tesla overall and makes the case he’s another man who may have been beyond the world surrounding him.
The film certainly makes a case for him, as he accomplishes plenty here with initial minimal faith it could actually happen, but the real issue occurs with trying to figure out the relational and business side of his life. Tesla has a handle on how to make things work, but this dangerous game of invention comes with high risk and high reward probabilities, and investors prefer to have guaranteed returns on investments if possible. This puts Tesla in a bind of doing whatever becomes necessary for him to put together his inventions and genuinely make big changes in the world without realizing someone has to foot the bill. This gets made explicitly clear in a conversation he has with investor J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) where he gets asked his end goal for one of the inventions. While Morgan only cares for how profit can be made, Tesla seeks to find a way to make it accessible and cheap for those in more underprivileged areas. While a valiant and respectable perspective, this does not ring music to the ears of the men trying to get massive profits rather than changing humanity in the long run. This divide ultimately decides the fate of the titular character.
Directorially, the choices to differentiate this film comes not only in the modern narration but also in how it utilizes its small budget to its advantage in using painted landscapes of outdoor backgrounds rather than going on location for it. In the first instance, it looked a bit jarring, but it all comes as part of the experience and the consistency made it interesting overall. These moments give a stark reminder of the film noting it’s certainly a movie and nothing captures it better than when Tesla begins to sing karaoke in this warm void. So much of the film tries to break the biopic conventions that when you look at it overall, not much of it occurs within the narrative but more so on the technical and directorial side.
So much of the film also heavily relies on Ethan Hawke’s performance and he does a splendid job with the character to present this often quiet but intelligent man. He constantly gives this appearance of having not much to say but when speaking about subjects he holds close to his heart, he brightens up. Hawke serves as a great foil for literally every other character in the story as most of them remain befuddled by Tesla’s demeanor and response to situations where he continually reminds them he only has an interest in the advancement of science and could care less about the finances.
A bit slow at times but overall a rewarding experience, Tesla tells an invigorating tale of how one of the world’s greatest minds tried to navigate in a world where dollars have more value than ideas. It features a strong leading man performance by Hawke and some fun additions by the likes of Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, and surprisingly Jim Gaffigan. It makes for some fun sequences overall but it all really comes down to the karaoke scene where the plot gets laid out for you.