I know what you’re probably thinking about “Tesla”, which stars Ethan Hawke in the title role: Here’s yet another straightforward “cradle to grave” historical biopic. Plus — wasn’t Nikola Tesla a key figure in another recent film?
You’re right on that second point. Tesla was played by Nicholas Hoult in 2019’s criminally overlooked “The Current War”. That drama also starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Those two inventors squared-off in a showdown to light-up America in the late 1800s. Tesla was the brash wild card.
Early scenes in “Tesla” mirror similar events depicted in “The Current War”. This time the roles of Edison and Westinghouse are played by Kyle MacLachlan and Jim Gaffigan, respectively.
But when a key character breaks the fourth wall, and then breaks-out a laptop, it’s clear we’re not in traditional historical drama territory anymore.
Writer/director Michael Almereyda (2017’s “Marjorie Prime”) has created a unique, avant-garde biopic which takes place in an alternating universe. “Tesla” is equally shocking, puzzling, upsetting and thrilling. It’s gutsy filmmaking. Almereyda deserves major credit for taking big risks, though not all of the movie works.
My favorite of the director’s creative “out-of-the-box” elements is his use of painted, scenic backgrounds in several key scenes. This device is essentially a cousin to director Joe Wright’s brilliant “play within a movie” techniques in 2012’s “Anna Karenina”.
Where Almereyda doesn’t succeed is with the incorporating of modern technology (that laptop, Edison breaking-out a cell phone) and pop references into a film set in the 19th century. Obviously, the purpose is to highlight the impact Tesla’s creative vision would have on future generations. But these stunning moments take you completely out of the story. As do a pair of key confrontations between Tesla and Edison, that we’re then told by the narrator (J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne) never actually happened. Watt? — I mean What?
But the coup de gras is a musical performance late in the film that will, undoubtably be used in every Ethan Hawke “Lifetime Achievement Award” montage. It’s undeniably memorable… though a little too forced.
Hawke remains one of our strongest “everyman” actors. And he brings that sensibility to the flawed, very human Tesla. It’s somewhat surprising that Tesla is not a focal character in his own life story. If you’re looking for a meaty central performance from Hawke, you’re not going to find it. But you’ll still be engrossed in the story – until those moments when you’re abruptly taken out.
“Tesla” is more scattered and flashier than “The Current War”. It’s definitely not as good a film. Like the Tesla v. Edison battle of AC v. DC, there will be positive reactions to the chances this movie takes – and negative ones. I’m sort of down the middle, giving a slight edge to the positive, simply for the ambition.