TESLA movie poster | ©2020 IFC Films

TESLA movie poster | ©2020 IFC Films

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Director: Michael Almereyda
Distributor: IFC Films
Release Date: August 21, 2020

TESLA is a quasi-biopic of Nicola Tesla (1856-1943), harnesser of alternating current electricity, and inventor of the induction motor and the Tesla coil. The “quasi” comes in with elements like a narrator (Eve Hewson), dressed in period garb, but who refers to a laptop and Google throughout. We also get live-action performers in front of full-screen period photos, and several scenes which, we’re promptly informed, never happened

The film opens with our narrator recounting an incident from Tesla’s childhood where he noticed static electricity by stroking a cat, as we see various people evidently roller-skating inside a mansion.

We then flash back to nine years earlier. We’re at Edison Machine Works in New York City, 1884. Everybody is working by candlelight, because indoor electrical lighting has yet to be perfected. Tesla (Ethan Hawke), newly employed by Thomas Alva Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), doesn’t hit it off well with the boss. Six months later, Tesla quits, and eventually winds up working with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan).

Tesla invents, theorizes, philosophizes, and otherwise uses his intellect to imagine and create. In this story, he is courted by Anne Morgan (Hewson), youngest child of wealthy J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and flirted with by famous actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan).

It’s difficult to know how to critique TESLA. On the one hand, director/writer Michael Almereyda seems to be very much making the movie he wants to make. He loves Tesla’s mind and gives us fascinating glimpses of concepts that came to shape the modern world. We can let it wash over us as a kind of poem, an ode to genius.

On the other hand, for those not on Almereyda’s wavelength, TESLA is episodic in the extreme. We hear Tesla is boastful, but don’t see it. We hear he’s giving interviews talking about receiving communications from Mars, but don’t see those either. As for Anne’s obsession with Tesla, we wind up marveling at how she manages to get enough information about what he’s doing to ask him relevant questions. It’s entirely nonreciprocal; Tesla never asks Anne anything about herself. She winds up being an expository device masquerading (barely) as a romantic subplot.

We don’t even get a good look at how it is that Tesla, despite a lot of investment capital, kept winding up broke. TESLA doesn’t tell us if he spent money on failed experiments, took too long with the ones that paid off, or used the funds for something else entirely. Since Tesla’s finances are referenced frequently here, it seems like a little more examination is warranted.

As for sometimes putting actors in front of photos, it makes sense from a budgetary standpoint (less expensive than shooting all those locations). From an artistic standpoint, it’s puzzling. We can come up with notions about how this represents both the historic and contemporary aspects of Tesla, but the thoughts don’t feel organic.

Hawke gives us a Tesla who is almost always pained, and frequently aggrieved. We can see that he’s preoccupied, but this Tesla is rarely allowed to enjoy his accomplishments. The character is accused of living in his head, and Hawke and Almereyda give us this very believably. Tesla can be brusque, but we don’t ever get a sense of him bragging, so we’re not sure if Morgan (who accuses him of this) is simply being petty, or if this is another omission.

TESLA at its best leaves us to ponder its observations, as voiced by its protagonist and by Anne. Tesla was a proponent of alternative current, so perhaps it’s fitting that there is little that could be considered a direct current here.

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