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Review: `Tesla’ is a shockingly unique entry in biopic genre

Douglas Laman
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
Kyle MacLachlan, background left, and Ethan Hawke co-star in the biopic "Tesla."

Anne Morgan (played by Eve Lawson), the ex-wife of Nikola Tesla, guides viewers through the most formative years of the inventor’s life in “Tesla” (now streaming). Though the film takes place in the late 19th century, Morgan’s got a handy Macbook laptop and a projector to help illustrate her points. We begin with Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Tesla’s got ideas to spare, particularly when it comes to new ways of dishing out electricity. However, he and Edison bitterly part ways. After earning up money as a ditch digger, Tesla is able to shore up some investors who can help get his patents off the ground.

Of course, his troubles are far from over - they never will be for a mind like Tesla’s that’s always thinking about inventions that can change the future rather than the people around him. This guy’s unusual ambitions get an equally unorthodox biopic with “Tesla.” Lest one think the recurring presence of modern technology is simply around to be a goof, writer-director Michael Almereyda utilizes these elements properly. Most notably, the modern-day world’s perceptions of figures like Tesla and Edison is established right away to instill a sense of melancholy into the whole movie.

Through Morgan’s anecdotes to the audience, we know that Tesla is not destined to be the victorious underdog he wants to be. In 2020, his life has been reduced to just the same three or four images that dominate Google Image search results for Nikola Tesla. Tesla’s ambitions, triumphs, defeats - those things that seem so important in the moments of his lives have all been washed away. All that’s left is a handful of still photographs. Knowing this from the outset lets viewers interpret the events of “Tesla” in a whole new light. Characters in the 1890s may be convinced their petty squabbles are the most important thing in the world, but we know better.

Expanding the focus of “Tesla” to incorporate the modern world allows the self-absorbed struggles of these characters to take on a tragic quality. Everyone in “Tesla” is working for their own agenda, sacrificing their own morals in the process. If only these people had known how the future would perceive them, would they have tried to be better to each other? This question runs throughout “Tesla” like a burst of electricity flowing through a wire. It’s especially apparent in fictitious flashback imagining a scenario in which Edison reaches out to Tesla and offers to work alongside him. This hope that unity can be formed between rivals is depicted as being as detached from reality as iPhones appearing in 1890.

Connections between the past and the present are further reinforced through a recurring visual motif that sees the characters in “Tesla” standing in front of paintings meant to represent real-world locations. This approach does help to depict locations like a crowded train station in a low-budget drama, sure. But it also sees “Tesla” further tying representations of the past with figures actually living in the era of yesteryear. Less successful than its merging of dissonant time periods are some other aspects of its screenplay. The subdued quality has its upsides, particularly in background gags like a woman casually using a modern-day vacuum cleaner.

However, it does mean the individual supporting players have such muted personalities that they don’t end up coming alive as people. Figures like Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) are just vague shadows failing to leave much of an impression either for good or ill. Luckily, “Tesla” is a movie hinging itself on tone and evocative imagery rather than fleshed-out people. This means scenes like Tesla’s futile final conversation with J.P. Morgan can still pack their intended melancholy wallop.

Of course, much of that impact can be attributed to Hawke doing remarkable work in the lead role. In the likes of “First Reformed” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Hawke showed he knows how to play people who keep your attention even as they keep their true intentions all bottled up inside. That gift is perfectly suited to a detached character like Tesla. I especially like how he doesn’t try to play the petulant qualities of Tesla as cutesy. There’s a quiet impatience in how Tesla interacts with many people and Hawke portrays that with an appropriate level of rawness. He also gets bonus points for selling the heck out of a climactic scene depicting Tesla singing a certain Tears for Fear song. This moment is right up there with Al Capone singing “If I Were King of the Forest” in “Capone” in terms of 2020 movie scenes that shouldn’t work yet somehow really do.

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.