To make a movie about Nikola Tesla rightfully deserves an ounce of ingenuity and can-do spirit. The man himself was enigmatic, deliriously ambitious, and neurotically hard-working, constantly fighting against low budgets and general indifference from investors. Finally, here’s a movie that tries to match the inventor’s unlikely path to cult fame.
In similar fashion to the titular man himself, Tesla is a low-budget affair stringed together with hacked filmmaking that tries to come off as deliberately innovative. We follow the middle parts of Nikola Tesla’s life, as he’s portrayed by Ethan Hawke in the aftermath of losing favor with his employer, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), over plans to harness alternating currents of electricity. Tesla moves forward with developing his eventual “Tesla Motor,” but mostly without the resources or charisma necessary to entice prospective benefactors.
To lead us through these periodically dark moments of failure is Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan, who regularly speaks directly to the audience with anachronistic language, constantly contextualizing Tesla’s life with the modern day. On paper, it’s a smart idea; we can take a shortcut through the more conventional biopic storytelling tropes, like the obligatory extended peek into Tesla’s childhood, or lines of legacy dashed across the screen right before the swell of the final credits. Tesla belays all that in favor of just telling you everything you might want to know in the moment. It’s essentially direct exposition, and for film buffs in search of new styles that exist for the sake of experimentation, these devices are worth experiencing at least once.
The problem, of course, is that very few people like to be told outright what to think, even if it is a more honest filmmaking style, devoid of the usual emotional manipulation tactics in films such as these. Either intentionally or not, Tesla trades immersion for information. For example, our impression of George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) as a paradoxical businessman and inventor isn’t given the chance to reveal itself through Gaffigan’s admittedly joyful performance, but instead though a series of what are essentially press notes rammed into the script right before his official introduction.
It’s hard not to appreciate a filmmaker who wants to try new things within what is typically a dry genre. But in too many places, these hacks come off as necessary because of budget restraints, not creative integrity. Many scenes are purposefully inundated with obvious sound stage quality, which again, is an idea on paper that can coherently connect us with the shoe-string and almost dream-like existence of Tesla’s real life. But in practice, it crosses the line into something far more absurd than it’s probably attempting, save for one particularly effective scene at the very end, which manages to cross the line so far, it finally feels like an extension of director Michael Almereyda’s true vision for this picture.
Tesla is at its brightest when it explores the man behind the lesser-known myth, making much out of his relationship with Anne Morgan, whose rich father might hold the key to his future success. Getting in the way, of course, is Tesla’s own devotion to putting aside all happiness, people, and even hobbies in order to see his vision come through. It’s almost a little disappointing to see the story cut short long before some of the more disastrous failures Tesla would face in court years later, but the film gives us the basic gist of this sad cycle. Some geniuses simply don’t get their due. At least not when they’re still alive.