I’ve been interested in inventor Nikola Tesla’s life and work for ages, so I was excited that a feature film was going to take him on. And I love Ethan Hawke who’s been getting better and better the last few years. (The Truth, First Reformed, Juliet, Naked, Maudie) Seemed like a great idea. But Telsa is anything but a standard biopic. It’s a jumble of scenes set in last days of America’s Gilded Age, the period when Tesla was warring with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) over the best way to deliver electricity to the masses — Direct vs Alternating Current. (AC v DC. – spoiler, Tesla was right) Narrated by J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson, Bridge of Spies), Tesla is a hybrid – documentary, experimental film, and period drama. Some of it works, and some is just weird.
The film begins with Tesla working for Edison, who isn’t really open to other people’s ideas. So he leaves and secures funding from George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) to work out his AC ideas. And they work, but ultimately he runs out of money. Then he gets more from J. P. Morgan to work on an invention that would send information over vast distances, but that too runs out before he can finish. And that’s about as far into his life as the film goes. Intertwined with the history are bits where he meets world famous actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), has an imaginary ice cream fight with Edison, and sings Tears for Fears’s hit “Everybody Want to Rule the World.” From time to time Anne, who sits in front of a computer, fills in gaps in the story, and Edison fiddles on a cell phone. Which is to say, you don’t really ever get to Tesla, the man. What made him tick? He’s certainly no talker or lady’s man, though he has his chances with Anne and Sarah.
Perhaps director Michael Almereyda felt that Tesla himself wasn’t that dramatic and chose to use all the bells and whistles he knows from his documentary career to paint a more entertaining picture. It’s definitely not like any other biopic you’re going to see. But is it worth your time? If you’re a Tesla fan, you probably know all about his trials with Edison and his trips out west, and you understand the science. You won’t learn much here. If you’ve never heard the name, except in relation to Elon Musk’s company, you’ll learn a bit, though you probably won’t understand the science or the enormity of his brilliance. And if you’re an Ethan Hawke fan, you’ll feel he’s wasted here. Loads of reaction shots, but no character. There is a film to be made about this unsung scientist. This one is more about the filmmaker than about Nikola Tesla.
There is a traditional documentary called Tower to the People-Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe from a few years ago that gives a better overview of the man and his work.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: Arty Chick is far more gracious in her assessment than I could ever be. Rarely have I seen so many fine actors gather for a film so boring. Tesla makes the recently released Marie Curie biopic Radioactive look like an action thriller. Despite being an Ethan Hawke fan myself, I failed to get any sort of ‘charge’ out of Tesla. -hb]
In select theaters, on streaming services and cable on demand.