“Nothing grows in the shadow of an oak tree.”
Electricity, computers, and cell phones, they’re all things we can’t imagine our lives without. We’re maybe even a bit too dependable. And in the process of cradling our devices to our chest, we forget those people who were at the center of this fight to give electricity to the entire world. One of those people being, Nikola Tesla — whose name has become well-known due to, Elon Musk’s company, and the man who falls between the cracks of the Thomas Edison story. Hell, we even got a closer look at George Westinghouse. You know, the man most known for his brand of televisions you find on Black Friday. So what do we do when historical figures need their story told? We make a movie, of course!
Tesla focuses on the series of accomplishments that pave Tesla’s (Ethan Hawke) life —beginning with the famous war to bathe the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — involving himself/Westinghouse and Edison/J.P. Morgan — in light. That story, however, can be found with more detail in, The Current War. Tesla is full of trivia pieces through the narration of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), J.P Morgan’s youngest daughter, but known better here as Tesla’s… love-interest? Their relationship is complicated, as each one wants something completely different than the other. But what else would you expect from the enigmatic inventor? Like most narrators, Anne fibs a bit here and there (the initial introduction of Edison and Tesla, and their ice cream face-off) while still providing informative details. Tesla yearns to be something more than just Edison’s associate, stating, “nothing grows in the shadow of an oak tree.” There’s so much to tell about Tesla’s illusive personality — being that he was a man full of ideas, but did not do it for fame or notoriety, something the film goes into with the addition of Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) — a famous actress at the time, and another “love-interest” in Tesla’s life. From place to place, vision to vision, Tesla begins to create something truly spectacular.
Michael Almereyda, who wrote and directed Tesla, has a talent of taking older stories and adding a modern flair. Almereyda’s, Hamlet (2000), a previous collaboration with Hawke and MacLachlan, serves as a decent adaptation of the Shakespearian tragedy set in today’s world. That same modern flair is interjected into Tesla as Anne sits down, opening up her Macbook Pro, turning on a projector, while diving deep into the plethora of information through Google searches. Tesla’s karaoke scene as he sings Tears for Fears’, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, not only helps to summarize his personality, but makes the film a little bit better. But as one may get excited to see this creative concept, it is, however, a bit hit and miss.
For both good and bad reasons, Tesla doesn’t read like your normal biopic. Tesla, while imaginative, never fully flushes out who this man was. It reads more like a documentary — rapidly going from one accomplish to another, but even documentaries flow better. The stories of his significant achievements are not cohesive, and often feel a bit choppy.
Tesla finds itself, too, in the shadow of a great man — unable to fully grasp Tesla’s complexity. While some elements of the film find itself only in the mere realm of interesting, it can’t elaborate on the stories that have already been told.
Written and Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, and Kyle MacLachlan