by Landon Johnson 17 August, 2020
To say that Tesla is an unconventional, comedic biopic would be an understatement. Writer-director Michael Almereyda introduces the enigmatic futurist to the audience with a humorous ice cream fight between Nikola Tesla, played by a brooding Ethan Hawke, and his nemesis Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). The exchange is so catty it can only be described as postmodern. Then, a voiceover tells the audience through a narration that it “likely didn’t happen this way.” The woman’s narration, who turns out to be the daughter of banking giant JP Morgan, Anne (Eve Hewson), continues to guide us through the story through a quirky, modernized Drunk History lens.
Anne, who was rumored to fancy Tesla in real life, uses contemporary methods such as Google searches to establish the disparity of how history remembers Tesla and Edison by gauging the number of results returned on the search engine when entering the inventors' names as a metric. Of course, Edison’s search result comes up with almost double the mentions than Tesla’s, despite the fact that Tesla’s vision for wireless electricity paved the way for mediums we use every single day, such as text messages, wireless internet, and even social media.
While Almereyda does an exquisite job of painting a picture of Tesla as an emotionless, somewhat isolated, cyborg-man and machines, the writer/director also softens him to show the more human side. Throughout the film, we see the underlying theme of the machismo of men who want to lead the world, but no one is quite sure how or the right direction leads them.
Almereyda also highlights the difference between the two titans by establishing that for Tesla it was never about monetary success like it was with Edison. Edison was a capitalist who was obsessed with money, power, and acquisition, while Tesla was more concerned with the science of it all and the more noble goal of helping humanity by creating efficient and effective energy that would be easily transmitted from miles away. To add humor to the cold Tesla character, while servicing to the film’s central theme of power, Almereyda has Hawke perform “Tears for Fears” in a sort of karaoke number—which is worth the price of admission.
Throughout the film, Hawke -- who never breaks character until his grand number in the finale -- remains stoic and idiosyncratic, while expressing his emotions with his gestures and eyes. The director said it was Hawke’s performance as Chet Baker in Born to be Blue that made him excited to see what Hawke could do with the role, and said playing Tesla also spoke to Hawke. The actor apparently excels at math and used to do math with his father who was also a mathematician that reminded him of Tesla, so Hawke felt this particular story of Nikola Tesla needed to be told and was excited to bring his personal experience to Almereyda’s depiction.
As played by Hewson, the delightful Anne offers more of comedic component to the role as she often chases after Tesla as well as narrating the interesting facts of his personal and professional life. She provides exposition to the life milestones that would have otherwise seemed unclear. Comedian-turned-actor Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, like Hawke offers a more stoic performance as industrialist George Westinghouse.
Given the innovative storytelling mixed with the oddball panache, Tesla has the ability to simultaneously mock, pay tribute, and educate on the very subject matter it exposes. After first premiering at Sundance in 2020, Tesla was acquired by IFC Films for distribution on VOD August 21st.
Stay tuned for interviews with Michael Almereyda!