Runtime: 102 minutes
Director/Writer: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Kyle McLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan
By Joan Amenn
Just last year, “The Current War” (2019) starred Nicholas Hoult as a young, socially naïve Nikola Tesla. In “The Prestige” (2006) David Bowie played Tesla as an older, world weary steampunk wizard. Somewhere between these two portrayals was the real Tesla, but this latest film will not help the audience find him.
“Ethan Hawke seems to be sleep walking through the whole film with only an occasional furrowed brow to indicate he has any emotional interaction with the rest of the cast.”
Although “Tesla” (2020) is supposedly about the man and his inventions, we learn very little about either. The rivalry between himself and Edison has already been portrayed in “The Current War” although Kyle McLachlan gamely tries to inject some energy into this production with his portrayal of the more well-known and greatly wealthier inventor.
Ethan Hawke seems to be sleep walking through the whole film with only an occasional furrowed brow to indicate he has any emotional interaction with the rest of the cast. Strangely, the narrator throughout the movie is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) who was the daughter of J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). She and Tesla were never romantically linked as the film suggests. He was also not involved in a relationship with Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dyan). By his own admission, Tesla was asexual which he said helped him focus on his work.
As much as “Tesla” tries to be an unconventional take on a standard biopic, what the film shows us is not necessarily true. At one point, Edison and Tesla assault each other with ice cream cones which is certainly an odd and unusual way of depicting their rivalry, but it comes across as annoyingly twee. In the same way, repeated interruptions of the narrative to consult Google regarding which historical figure has the most search results trivializes the struggles Tesla went through to experiment and invent. He was reduced to digging ditches at one point, but the film lingers on this for only a few minutes as if it was insignificant.
“Although “Tesla” might be seen as avant-garde in its approach, it robs the man it tells about of his iconoclastic complexity.”
Jim Gaffigan portrays George Westinghouse as a likeable, grandfatherly figure who supports Tesla by buying some of his patents and investing in his vision of alternating current. What the film does not disclose is that Westinghouse had to be pressured into granting Tesla a pension later on in life when he was destitute because it might cause a scandal if it ever got out to the press that the highly thought of inventor had been abandoned by his former employer.
Although “Tesla” might be seen as avant-garde in its approach, it robs the man it tells about of his iconoclastic complexity. Someday soon we may see his laboratory in Long Island, New York restored (it is currently under the guidance of a non-profit for that purpose) and a film that does justice to him and his work.
“Tesla” IS NOW AVAILABLE IN SELECT THEATERS, DIGITAL & CABLE VOD
Photos copyright IFC Films