Tesla eschews a straightforward narrative with an abstract telling of the iconic inventor’s story. The action takes place primarily on sets against artistic backdrops. Different lighting schemes wash the actors in vivid colors with a nearly constant voice over from Eve Hewson. She plays Anne Morgan, who also…drumroll please…provides a slideshow presentation using a laptop throughout the film. Hewson adds a bullet point version of Nikola Tesla’s life, resplendent with “what if” scenarios. Tesla is an undeniably creative endeavor, but not compelling in any meaningful way.
We first meet Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) as a machinist working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) in 1880’s New York City. The quiet and deliberative Tesla is upstaged by the arrogant and bombastic Edison. He cannot convince Edison that his AC electrical power system is safer and more efficient than DC current. Tesla’s acquaintance with Robert Underwood Johnson (Josh Hamilton) puts him on the radar of Anne Morgan, the youngest daughter of Gilded Age banker J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Who had previously bankrolled Edison’s lighting company.
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Tesla is eventually recruited by industrialist George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) to compete against Edison’s DC electrical grid. This infuriates Edison who savages both men in the press with false claims about the dangers of AC power. Meanwhile, Anne Morgan fruitlessly pursues a romantic relationship with Tesla. His interests are purely scientific, but he cannot forgo access to her billionaire father. Tesla becomes more detached from reality as his fame and accomplishments grow. His genius electrifies the world, but he never achieves the fortune or acclaim of Thomas Edison.
Anne Morgan is the primary character in a film about Nikola Tesla. Ethan Hawke has more screen time, but says almost nothing in a purposely understated performance. Morgan explains his thoughts, feelings, and colossal business mistakes. Tesla was unconcerned with patents or money, as long as he could continue inventing. Morgan also sprinkles salacious details about Edison’s affinity for young brides, while comparing the Google search responses of both men. It’s a tabloid twist with a modern retrospective of the legendary Current War. None of this provides any real insight to Nikola Tesla’s character.
Writer/director Michael Almereyda (Hamlet, Marjorie Prime) is imaginative in his approach. I honestly can’t think of any biopic that remotely resembles Tesla. The problem is that it feels like sideshow theatrics. We get a hip primer on Tesla and Edison from a lovelorn debutante. But there’s nothing substantive about them from her point of view. It’s odd to take such creative license and yet have little depth to the story. The entire film could be recut as Anne Morgan’s perspective on a failed romance.
Tesla can be viewed through a purely stylistic lens. Michael Almereyda takes his indie budget and delivers a twenty-first century interpretation of a seminal historical figure. That’s not enough for me. The film needed to captivate further. A shiny object can only hold your interest for so long. Tesla is a production of Passage Pictures and Millennium Media. It will be available on demand August 21st from IFC Films.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.