Review: ‘Tesla,’ starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan and Hannah Gross

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Tesla”

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. Northeast and in Colorado, primarily from 1884 to 1901, the dramatic film “Tesla” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant in the United States who later became a U.S. citizen, is a brilliant inventor, but he struggles to get investors and he experiences bad business deals.

Culture Audience: “Tesla” will appeal mostly to people who are open to experimental biopics, since the movie has some unconventional elements that viewers will either like or dislike.

Ethan Hawke and Eve Hewson in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

If you think a movie called “Tesla,” about pioneering Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943 at the age of 86, is a stuffy affair with the usual biopic tropes, think again. “Tesla” writer/director Michael Almereyda’s very unconventional depiction of Tesla’s life has some out-of-left-field scenes that will either intrigue or annoy viewers. The movie should be commended for taking some bold risks, although the pacing in some parts of “Tesla” drags to the point where people might get bored.

That’s because “Tesla” is more of an introspective and murky think piece instead of a rousing story about one of science’s pioneers who was underrated and often overlooked during his time. (Tesla’s name was the inspiration for the tech company founded by Elon Musk, as well as the California-based rock band Tesla, which had hits in the 1980s and early 1990s.) The movie “Tesla” might hold the interest of people who don’t want to see a typical biopic, but everyone else should stay clear of this movie if they want something that sticks to a briskly paced “feel good” formula. And this movie (which mostly takes place from 1884 to 1901) isn’t really told from Tesla’s perspective.

One of the unpredictable aspects of “Tesla” is that Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) is almost like a supporting character in this story that’s supposed to be about Tesla’s life. The movie is narrated by heiress/philanthropist Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson), who befriends Tesla in the movie and offers observations of him, as if she’s commenting in the present day. (In real life, she died in 1952, at the age of 78.) For example, there are multiple scenes with Anne using an Apple laptop computer and mentioning that if people do Google searches on inventors Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Tesla, there are millions more search results for Edison and Westinghouse than there are for Tesla.

The point is clear: Tesla, who worked with Edison and Westinghouse during various parts of his career, is still frequently overshadowed by them in the present day, just as he was when he was alive. Does the movie “Tesla” present him as a misunderstood genius? Yes and no.

On the one hand, the movie shows how Tesla (who immigrated to the U.S. in 1884) could excel as a scientist/inventor. His inventions included designing one of the first alternate current [AC] hydroelectric power plants in the United States in 1895. On the other hand, Tesla wasn’t so smart when it came to business. The movie depicts some well-documented situations when he was notoriously cheated in business deals and made other bad financial decisions that left him destitute by the time he died.

The “Tesla” movie makes it clear, through Anne’s constant narration, that Tesla was so introverted that the few people he allowed to get close to him often did not know what he was thinking. Anne explains that one of the biggest frustrations she had with Tesla was that he “lives inside his head” too much.

The movie shows that, in addition to Anne, there was one person Tesla was close to in his prime years as an inventor: his assistant Anthony Szigeti (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a Hungarian engineer whom Tesla met when they were students at Prague University. There’s a scene where Tesla shows that he’s still haunted by the death of his brother Dane, who died in a horsing accident at the age of 12, when Tesla was 7. Tesla confides to Anthony about his beloved brother Dane: “He was the brilliant one. I could never measure up.”

And the movie also depicts that although Tesla certainly excelled in his intellectual pursuits, due to his pioneering work with electricity, he placed his work over his personal life. Tesla never married, did not have children, and he died alone. Anne mentions in voiceover narration that Tesla was very close to his mother in his childhood. Anne says aloud at one point in the movie: “I came to wonder: Could any woman touch or reach Tesla the way his mother had?”

In the movie, Anne is just a platonic friend to Tesla, although it’s hinted that at some point that she had a romantic attraction to him, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Anne cared a great deal about what Tesla thought of her, as evidenced in a scene where Anne and Tesla are rollerskating together in a courtyard. Tesla falls down and cuts short the activity. “I’m fine,” he tells Anne. “Sometimes I have an unfavorable reaction to pearls.” Anne then hastily takes off the pearl necklace she is wearing.

French superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt (played by Rebecca Dayan) has a brief flirtation with Tesla, but it never goes anywhere, since they only encounter each other occasionally at social events. During one of those encounters, Sarah emerges in a scene set to electronic dance music. It’s one of many scenes where the movie infuses modern elements of things that weren’t invented yet during the time period depicted in the movie.

Other real-life people depicted in the movie include banker Alfred Brown (played by Ian Lithgow) and attorney Charles Peck (played by Michael Mastro), two investors who formed the Tesla Electric Company with Tesla and helped Tesla set up his own lab in 1887. Also portrayed in the movie are writer/editor Robert Underwood Johnson (played by Josh Hamilton), who was best known for his work with The Century Magazine, and his wife Katharine Johnson (played by Lucy Walters), who both befriended Tesla in the 1890s.

Hawke, who starred in director Almereyda’s 2000 movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” certainly wasn’t cast in the role of Tesla because of his physical resemblance. In real life, Tesla was about 6’2″ and had a rail-thin figure. Hawke is 5’10” and has an average build. And Hawke’s accent in the movie isn’t that great. It’s supposed to be a Serbian accent, but it comes out sounding quasi-European.

However, what Hawke does capture well (and it looks like this was the intention of the filmmakers) is Tesla’s introverted nature, his reluctance to deal with confrontation and his almost blind trust that other inventors would have the same type of integrity that he seemed to have. There are several scenes in the movie that show how Tesla could be in a room with other people and be overshadowed by people with bigger personalities and more financial clout.

Anne, a daughter of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan (played by Donnie Keshawarz), is one of those people, as depicted in this movie. Even though she’s much younger than Tesla, she has the power to get him major investment money via her father. And being the narrator of this movie, Anne’s confident personality shines through much more than Tesla’s.

Anne would become an outspoken feminist later in her life, and the movie shows signs of her being a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to go against tradition. She likes to challenge Tesla with questions having to do with science or philosophy. In one scene, Anne says to Tesla: “Idealism cannot work together with capitalism. True or false?”

Another personality that outshines Tesla’s is that of Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the flashy inventor who took big risks and was often accused of taking credit for other people’s work. Tesla was sometime caught between the bitter rivalry of Edison and the more low-key George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan), but the end result was that Tesla was helped and hurt by his business deals with both of these titan inventors. Westinghouse was not as much of an attention-seeker as Edison was, but the movie shows that Westinghouse (just like Edison) was also capable of making ruthless business decisions, at the expense of alienating colleagues and in order to make himself wealthy.

Of the three inventors, Edison is one who’s depicted in the least flattering way in the movie. In a scene taking place in New York City in 1884, and portraying recent immigrant Tesla joining his new employer Edison for dinner with some other men, Edison shows some xenophobia by trying to embarrass Tesla with these questions: “Is it true that you’re from Transylvania? Have you ever eaten human flesh?” Edison then tries to laugh off these insults by saying, “We like to give the new men a hard time.”

Edison is essentially portrayed as a pompous blowhard who could be short-sighted if he couldn’t see immediate ways to make money. In one scene, Edison tells a group of businessmen: “Alternating current is a waste of time. There’s no future in it.” And in another scene, Tesla comments on Edison: “He talks to everyone but is incapable of listening.”

The movie has some whimsical fantasy sequences that Anne admits in narration never happened. One is a scene depicting Edison and Tesla getting into an argument, and they take ice cream cones that they’re holding and smash each cone on the other person. Another fabricated scene is one where Edison meets Tesla in a saloon and makes an apology to Tesla, who worked briefly for Edison from 1884 to 1885. And who really knows if Tesla and Anne ever rollerskated together in a courtyard? However, it’s depicted more than once in the movie.

The movie also portrays milestone achievements in science and technology, such as the invention of the phonograph, indoor electrical wiring and the first experiments in human electrocution. In all of these depictions, Edison or Westinghouse get all the glory, while Tesla’s contributions are trivialized to the media and to the public. The movie also shows Tesla in various times and places, such as New York City in 1881; Pittsburgh in 1888; Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899; and New York state’s Long Island in 1901.

Anne narrates what goes on in the personal lives of Edison and Westinghouse, including Edison’s marriage to second wife Mina Miller Edison (played by Hannah Gross), who had a big influence on her husband’s business decisions. The movie even goes as far to show some of Edison’s courtship with Mina, when she was engaged to marry a preacher’s son. It’s another example of how much of Tesla’s life takes a back seat to larger personalities in the movie.

The Tesla scene in the movie that most people will talk about or remember is one of those “bizarre time warp” moments, because it shows Tesla, alone with a microphone, belting out Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” It’s not performed in an upbeat karaoke way, but in a world-weary way that reflects Tesla’s state of mind of being worn down by his life’s disappointments. This scene is so kooky and unexpected that viewers will either love it or hate it.

Is this “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” scene meant to be funny or edgy? That’s up to viewers decide. The scene comes near the end of the movie, and it’s a welcome jolt from some of the tedium that happens during various parts of this unevenly paced film.

Because indoor electrical wiring was still a luxury for most of the time period in which the movie takes place, many of the interior scenes are darkly lit and present many of the characters in dour and shadowy tones. And the movie doesn’t offer a lot of scenes of Tesla actually doing any inventing, probably because the filmmakers thought that these types of scenes would bore viewers who aren’t science-minded.

Tesla isn’t always center stage in this story, and that might be off-putting to viewers who are expecting an in-depth portrayal of his personality. But it’s obvious that Tesla was an enigma to many people who knew him. Would it have been better for a movie about Tesla to invent aspects of his personality that might not have existed, just to be a more crowd-pleasing movie? It’s obvious that the filmmakers decided to keep Tesla an enigma and throw in some modern and unexpected twists in telling this story.

For a more conventional portrayal of Tesla, people can see director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2019 dramatic film “The Current War: The Director’s Cut,” which is about the competition between Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon), with Nicholas Hoult in the supporting role of Tesla. Just like with the “Tesla” movie, “The Current War: The Director’s Cut” has cast members whose acting talent elevates the flawed screenplay. “Tesla” offers enough original unpredictability that makes this movie worth watching for anyone who’s curious to see an artsy, non-traditional version of Tesla’s life.

IFC Films released “Tesla” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 21, 2020.