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Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan
Writer/Director: Michael Almereyda
In Theaters and Streaming at Video On Demand Cable
As the new biographical film Tesla unspools onscreen, there is a neat bit of synchronicity in realizing that, if not for the central character, you might not be watching a movie at all.
For while it is true that Thomas Edison is largely credited with helping invent the movies, it was his archrival Nikola Tesla who not only single-handedly devised the system of sending sound and pictures over the air, but who also invented the technology that still transmits electricity across long distances from power plants to transformers to the wires leading into your TV.
Ethan Hawke, one of the screen’s great chameleons, plays Tesla, a Serbian immigrant who arrived penniless on these shores in the late 1800s and promptly set about transforming the world — first as a staffer at Edison’s New Jersey invention factory and then as an associate of another giant of the early electrical age, George Westinghouse.
Like many singular geniuses, Tesla was not known for playing well with others. He was sullen, surly, and downright antisocial. Such characters can often be difficult to endure onscreen — why should we invest two hours of our lives in someone who seems congenitally incapable of forging human relationships? — but Hawke succeeds admirably in bridging the chasm between us and the inventor.
True, Hawke’s Tesla seems to grunt his words rather than enunciate them, and even as he is pursued by some of the most desirable women of the age (including kazillionaire J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, played with smoky appeal by The Knick’s Eve Hewson) Tesla clearly prefers the company of the enormous sparks that crackle from his electric coil. At times, Hawke’s Tesla seems so physically twisted by his obsessive internal focus he threatens to literally fold in on himself. But Hawke’s remarkably physical performance elicits more sympathy than aversion. He is a man possessed, for sure, but he’s under the spell of both interior demons and the mysteries of a natural world that only he seems capable of comprehending.
Such a man is, of course, doomed to be chewed up by the world of commerce, and Tesla runs straight into the maw of America’s aging Boy Wonder, Thomas Edison. Kyle MacLachlan puts his perpetually cherubic face to excellent use here as the Wizard of Menlo Park; it’s a cheeky mask that barely conceals the all-consuming vanity that drives him. Sizing up Tesla, Edison realizes he’s dealing with a world-class genius — and he spends much of the rest of his life ruthlessly trying to bury him.
For a time, Tesla finds success under the wings of Westinghouse — played with surprising spirit by comedian Jim Gaffigan — but once again, soulless Big Business crushes the man who can envision sound waves that split the earth but who can’t see the danger of a rogue contract clause.
Befitting its maddeningly eccentric subject, Tesla is a decidedly off-kilter biography. Writer/director Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime) lets the story unfold largely chronologically, but occasionally he’ll throw in a time-bending curve, as when his narrator — Tesla’s frustrated paramour Anne Morgan — calmly produces a MacBook laptop computer to show us how many hits you get when you Google “Tesla.”
The gimmicks don’t always work — the film at times becomes as haughtily self-aware as Tesla himself is painfully clueless.
It might have been nice to see a film made about Tesla in the 1960s, the golden age of overblown biopics, when David Lean might have splashed Omar Sharif as Tesla across a giant screen, bedding heiresses and sending lightning bolts screaming into the Colorado foothills.
Such a film might not have been as authentic to the true person as Tesla is — still, it might have done more justice to the epic influence he’s had on all of our lives.
Featured image: Ethan Hawke in Tesla (Photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of IFC Films)