By Laurie Coker
Most hear the name Tesla and think of electric cars or perhaps the Tesla vehicle that Elon Musk launched into space as part of his SpaceX project. Behind the name is story. Ethan Hawke stars as Nikola Tesla, the brilliant inventor who played with electricity, in Tesla, written directed by Michael Almereyda. Hawke and Almereyda have created a detailed account of man whose brilliance made him both aggravating and extraordinary.
After he emigrated to the United States, Tesla spent some time working for Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan). Almereyda pays special attention on the years between 1884 (his time with Edison) and 1905, when his Wardenclyffe Tower project, financed by J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), completely collapsed. He chooses to have Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson, daughter to J.P., narrator and participant in the story. Anne’s perspective is sometimes brutally honest and at others empathetic.
Hawke plays Tesla as a brooding, dark and listless man who moves through his interactions with limited visual emotion, although arrogance does bleed out. Tesla, as Almeredya tells it, has ideas as diverse as possible – some magnificent and some completely ridiculous and Hawke plays the character as marginally perplexed and then ultimately passionate – it is as if Tesla had little tolerance for people who could not see the wonder his visions and his intellect.
Hawke, for his choices, does an excellent job, but it is the others – MacLachlan, Hewson, Jim Gaffigan (as George Westinghouse) and Rebecca Dayan (as actress Sarah Bernhardt) who illuminate the film’s otherwise dull pace. Gaffigan does an excellent turn as Westinghouse, he lights up the parts he is in. Hewson is in only a few scenes, but her narration acts as Tesla’s conscience and gives insight into the man that makes the biopic slightly more interesting and the story somewhat more watchable. It is they who bring a few moments of whimsy and humor, but Hewson keeps it real – noting the possibility of stretching reality.
Almeredya’s story does not follow the basic streamlined biographic path and instead he opts for non-standard cinematic tactics to enliven the facts but this ploy doesn’t always work for him. Tesla is beautiful to look at, and although dreary at times, the settings and costumes are fantastic. All the elements are there for a stunning film, but it isn’t always as interesting as it promises. A B- goes in the grade book for this one. So many elements are perfect in spite of overall dullness of some aspects of the final product.