August 21, 2020 Tesla (Movie Review)
Ethan Hawke stars as genius inventor Nikola Tesla in the new biopic Tesla, which arrives to select theaters and On Demand on Friday, August 21, 2020, via IFC Films.
A visionary in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (Hawke: Reality Bites 1994, Training Day 2001) came from humble beginnings. An immigrant who came to America with a heart full of expectation and hope, Tesla was forced to dig ditches to survive as he worked to develop his own theories and ideas. Briefly working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan: Twin Peaks series, Portlandia series) at his Machine Works in New York City—where he earned $15 a week—he would go on to build a relationship with Edison’s key patron, inventor and businessman George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan: The Jim Gaffigan Show series, Chappaquiddick 2017).
With his revolutionary work in creating a system of generating and transmitting alternating current (AC) electricity, Tesla became famous. But to continue his research, particularly in wireless energy and communications, he required benefactors. This is where the richest man in the world, John Pierpont Morgan Sr. (Donnie Keshawarz: The Adjustment Bureau 2011, Ad Astra 2019), comes into the picture, along with his daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson: Bridge of Spies 2015, Robin Hood 2018). Sophisticated in her own right, Ms. Morgan shows an affinity for the inventor on their very first meeting.
A biography that explores the genius of a man who struggled financially throughout his entire life, all while excelling in his groundbreaking ideas, Tesla is the struggle between idealism and capitalism, and the very personal story of a man who doffed all romantic pursuits in favor of bold achievements. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda (Experimenter 2015, Marjorie Prime 2017), this is a modern and artistic take on the biopic and one that spans 102 minutes.
An immense undertaking that honors one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Almereyda’s dramatic biography uses a framing device that features Hewson, in character as Anne, offering input into pieces of Tesla’s life from a distinctly modern perspective. With a perfect voice for the narratives that connect scenes, Hewson adds to the film’s quirky approach to its subject matter, one that keeps it from becoming textbook stale. (Of course, it would be difficult to refer to any biopic that concludes with Hawke covering Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as mundane.)
So how does the film portray the man himself? Hawke’s Tesla is an introverted dreamer, a pensive man lacking in a sense of humor. His brow often wrinkled, his mind perpetually turning cogs as he tunes out those around him, the filmic version of the inventor comes very close to what the historical record shows to be his ‘true’ personality. A severe germaphobe who suffered from OCD, he also held a firm belief in chastity. And while we know that Tesla did, in fact, cross paths with French actress The Divine Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan: From Paris With Love 2010, The Neon Demon 2016) in his lifetime, it is highly doubtful that there was a relationship such as the one depicted here. In this, Tesla delivers an enjoyable moviegoing experience that, like most biopics, should not be taken as 100% historically accurate.
That said, Hawke does an exemplary job of bringing a complicated genius to life. Though he fails at achieving a believable foreign-born accent, this is easily overlooked thanks to his successes in all other areas. In one scene, Anne accuses Tesla of living too much inside his own mind, and the actor beautifully brings that idea to life. Maintaining a stoic façade that shows the wear and tear of life on a brilliant mind, he is thoughtful and introverted, portraying all of the nuance required to depict his complicated subject.
Much as in life, Tesla finds his foil in Edison. Boastful and brash where Tesla is reserved and quiet, MacLachlan delivers an excellent performance as Tesla’s commercially successful rival. Gaffigan, as well, is wonderful as the man that often links the two, Westinghouse. But it is Hewson’s Anne who reaches exceptional heights. A daring and sophisticated young woman, she sees something she clearly likes and she pursues Tesla with a dogged determination that reads as elegant, if a bit manipulative.
In truth, the magnificent performances are many. Credit where it is due, the film’s exceptional cast also includes the likes of Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Girls series, NOS4A2 series), Michael Mastro (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit series, Paterno 2018), Ian Lithgow (Girls series, Bull series), Lucy Walters (Power series, Get Shorty series), Blake DeLong (When They See Us mini-series, Late Night 2019), and many, many more.
A biography that explores the life of a man who, despite his obvious genius, often struggled to survive in a dog eat dog world, Tesla is the struggle between idealism and capitalism as told through the real life of an immigrant who came to America and changed the world. And yet, despite his successes, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been had Tesla been a businessman who was commercially savvy. While we can never know that answer, it’s important to pay homage to the brilliant minds who have shaped our modern age, and Almereyda’s biography does a splendid job of this. As such, Cryptic Rock gives Tesla 4 of 5 stars.