A film review by Craig J. Koban October 5, 2020


2020, PG-13, 102 mins.

Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla  /  Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison  /  Hannah Gross as Mina Edison  /  Josh Hamilton as Robert Underwood Johnson  /  Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan  /  Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda



The fascinating, but poorly executed TESLA tries to cover a lot of history in a far too brief running time, not to mention that the titular Serbian-American inventor, engineer, and way ahead of his time futurist becomes sort of an underwritten cipher in his own movie.  

Considering the sheer scope of Nikola Tesla's breakthrough ideas and inventions - some of which included the design of the alternating electrical current and even shockingly prophetic ideas about wireless transmission of currents a century-plus before Wi-Fi was even an ubiquitous thing - a biopic of this intrepid and brilliant visionary should have been equally grand.  Directed Michael Almereyda has made one here that's anything but conventional, which is commendable in its own right.  But all the avant garde approaches can't hide the fact that TELSA doesn't ultimately add up to anything of substance.  It's an ambitious, but frustratingly underwhelming work. 

The film offers up a portal into the late 19th/early 20th Century life of the man in question, which hones in much of its focus on the mid 1880s to the early 1900s, during which time Tesla would move from his home nation to America and have a rather tenuous working relationship with Thomas Edison, another inventor that hardly needs any introduction.  In the early stages of the Almereyda's script we meet up with Tesla (Ethan Hawke, who previously worked with the writer/director on their compelling modern day take on HAMLET), who's working for Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), but the former's domineering management style annoys Tesla, not to mention that both have opposite views on delivering electricity to the masses.  Edison favors a Direct Current system, whereas Tesla likes his Alternating Current method, and he strongly believes that his invention is the finer of the two and the true path to future development.  Unfortunately for him, his ideas never really gel with those of Edison, which forces Tesla to branch out on his own to further perfect his technology.  There's one problem, though: he requires sizeable capital investment to take his research to the next level. 

Through trial and error, Tesla finds a money man in George Westinghouse (a very decent Jim Gaffigan), an American businessman with an eye for talent, not to mention that Tesla's work has caught the eye of the daughter of the ultra rich J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz).  With ample financial backing, Tesla commits himself to his work with fearless determination, but faces several punishing impediments along the way, like the fact that many can't grasp his frankly out-there ideas about electricity, not to mention that the more well known and established Edison and his inventions clamor for the limelight.  That, and Tesla makes some rather horrible business deals that hurt him outside of his scientific research.  He does have a confidant in his wife, Anne (Eve Hewson), who's not only the aforementioned daughter of Morgan, but also serves as a narrator of sorts (more on that in a bit) that chronicles her husband's life work and struggles for legitimacy. 



I appreciated the fact that TELSA - at least early on - is a piece of experimental cinema as far as the biopic goes.  It's not trying to spin a tale of its subject matter in question with obligatory storytelling that goes from A to B and finally to C in a fairly mechanical and conventional manner.  Almereyda is obviously not compelled here to make an ordinary historical drama about this extraordinary man, so instead he opts for some visually inventive stylistic flourishes here alongside having Tesla's wife in Eve frequently break the fourth wall - and oftentimes using modern technology - to provide a mosaic-like impression of this man that's cultivated from multiple time periods.  In one cheeky instance, Eve sits at a desk and anachronistically turns on a laptop to inform us that Edison has far more Google search results than Tesla (especially when it comes to actual archival photos), which, in turn, helps to emphasize his underdog stature in the world he occupied.  The point with moments like this, I think, is to help cement the fact that Edison's work and inventions are common knowledge and that Tesla's were less mainstream and on the fringe.  There are times when TESLA takes on the form of a intimate college lecture or even a play, but the director's ultimate end game is to shatter preconceived viewer expectations in the material.  In modest respects, Almereyda's approach here is refreshingly different, which matches the anti-establishment mindset of Tesla himself. 

Regretably, though, this is also a source of one of the larger problems that I had with this film.   TESLA is undeniably bold and take risks in ways that few filmmakers would with the genre, but I rarely felt like I gained a true impression of who Tesla really was.  We get sprinkles here and there of his conceptual brilliance and just how far advanced he was thinking for his time (I mean, the fact that he was pondering a future world of omnipotent and easily accessible wireless conductivity of electricity and communication as far back as 1893 is staggering to think about), but most of what we get here is superficial surface details.  We witness his quirks, idiosyncrasies, faults, but not much of a fundamental understand of his inner thought processes and how he tapped into his mind boggling for the era contraptions.  I think this has a lot to do with TELSA being quite fractured and episodic, which consequently leaves many aspects of his life either under developed or ignored.   

There are instances here and there when Almereyda doesn't seem to have a unifying tone to his piece as well, and for every solemn scene in the film there are more distractingly incongruent ones that seem like they've been lifted from a far more outlandish Tesla effort altogether.  I'm thinking of one sequence that imagines a verbal sparring match between Edison and Tesla that breaks out into an ice cream throwing contest between the pair that aims for chuckles, but just comes off as weird.  And speaking of weird, there's another montage that seems lifted from the David Lynchian nonsensical playbook, which shows Tesla grabbing a microphone and engaging in an impromptu rendition of Tears for Fear's "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (huh?).  Scenes like this are frankly more bizarre than eccentrically endearing, and Almereyda does manage to tone things down a bit by utilizing some welcoming low-tech stylistic choices (probably born out of budgetary restraints) of static photographic backdrops and rear and front screen projection (early techniques of a bygone era of Hollywood of yesteryear), yet all of the wink-wink slight of hand movie tricks that the director employs here can't override what is a pretty shallowly written portrait of a mastermind. 

One last thing: Ethan Hawke has always been one of our most reliable of actors and maybe one of the best to have never won an Oscar (look at his searing work in Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED), but he's so flat registered, so disappointingly sullen, and so unflatteringly mannered as Tesla that it simply becomes very hard to latch onto this man in terms of any level of rooting interest.  Hawke does capture this man's level of tunnel visioned drive and unwavering conviction; there are times when he seems frankly befuddled as to why no one can understand or comprehend his ideas for an electric utopia of the future.  Yet, Tesla is also portrayed her as a figure deeply uncomfortable in his own skin, where even engaging in the social niceties of his time with other well meaning people seems wholly foreign to him.  Still, Hawke never finds a manner of modulating between multiple extremes here: All in all, his Tesla here is internalized, moody, monosyllabic, and just not altogether engaging as a character.  It leaves you wondering why you should even care about him or the film he occupies. 

That's all too bad, because there's a great, against the grain biopic buried deep within TESLA that desperately wants to emerge, but the end result is something that seems haphazardly cobbled together and lacking in cohesion.  Again, there's nothing wrong with a film that flips the bird to genre troupes (I like filmmakers that challenge tired formulas), but TESLA just lacks - pardon the obvious pun - that ethereal spark of dramatic innovation.  Nikola Tesla was indeed a rule breaker and a maverick scientific mind that shunned established status quos.  He rebelliously thought outside of the box, but his risks rarely led to rewards, which might be why he became relatively penniless and had his work become a footnote in history when he died in 1943 (it was only in the subsequent decades afterwards where a greater understanding of his work became more appreciated, especially in relation and comparison to Edison).  Tesla demands a better biopic than this fearlessly experimental, but in due course undisciplined and unfocused film here.  Much like the historical man in question when he left this earth, TESLA will fall into relative and forgettable obscurity very quickly after being screened for most.  

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