Michael Almereyda’s much anticipated film, TESLA (2020), is available for streaming and has premiered to a mixed bag of reviews. While popular sites, Imdb.com and Rottentomatoes.com have given the film relatively low rating scores, largely positive critical reviews persist, lauding Almereyda’s unusual and anachronistic take on the inventor’s life. It is clear the director’s goal was not to create the typical Hollywood biopic, but an artistic and momentary portal into Tesla’s (Ethan Hawke) brooding and lonely existence. No doubt the inclusion of modern technology enhances viewers’ understanding of how Tesla saw his work affecting the future of technology and humanity, however, not all audiences will be charmed by the approach and might find it, at times, ill fitting.
Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), an enduring supporter of Tesla’s and daughter of renowned investment banker, J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), guides viewers through the inventor’s life. Spouting Google search results in front of a laptop and dispelling popular myths about Tesla and Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), one can’t help but feel an initial anticipation at the film’s unique narrative devices. The inclusion of synth music and ‘80s hits, especially during moments of intersectionality with celebrity, is an interesting subconscious comment on Tesla’s influence on even that paradigm, but the tropes can wear thin when coupled with play-like scene staging and tableau. There is no doubt that the film is a creative piece, filling the order of a biopic as viewers are shown Tesla’s days with Edison to his destitute and lonesome final ones, but does require a certain taste for theatrics.
While the film’s style seems to be its most dominant trait, the performances closely follow as a positive aspect. Hawke reveals Tesla as a temperamental introvert with both great visions and great financial obstacles to achieving them. The approach works for the most part, with the inventor’s psyche never fully realized by the audience, proving Anne Morgan’s narration as not only a stylistic feature, but also an insightful and crucial one. In that vein, Hewson excels in her interpretation of Tesla’s most devout advocate, bringing clarity to their relationship through her quiet and even-handed performance, but also demonstrating how untouchable and out of place the figure was and remains. It is also through MacLachlan’s embodiment of Tesla’s biggest rival, Edison, that audiences gain perspective. MacLachlan’s louder and brasher portrayal perfectly complements Hawke’s sensitive one, providing necessary tension to the film’s plot, and no doubt, reflecting their actual lives. Perhaps the most surprising and, therefore striking performance would be that of Jim Gaffigan’s as George Westinghouse. While his scenes are limited, he manages to steal every one of them. Most well-known for his stand-up acts and talents in the comedy arena, many viewers will find his participation and success in the dramatic genre refreshing, despite having performed in a handful of other serious pieces before.
It’s hard to say if every moment of Almereyda’s vision works, as the inventor himself was so displaced. TESLA achieves its goal in being a unique and creative take on the notoriously boring genre of the biopic, with Almereyda knowingly pushing the film’s and audience’s limits, as he stated for Rogerebert.com this August,
“Why should there be limits? And how do you ever know if something is going to work? You just have to be willing to take risks…Why not be open to the widest range of experiences and references? The filmmakers I like most tend to be brave in that way.”
If not for anything, it may be worth it just to watch Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla belting out the Tears for Fears hit, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.”