The story of the genius inventor Nikola Tesla isn’t something new or groundbreaking. Science minded folks such as myself have known about the war between Tesla and Thomas Edison over which form of electricity transport was better for years. Tesla loses the battle but eventually wins the war and goes on to be almost completely forgotten.
So what can a biopic made in 2020 bring to the tragic story of the man we owe almost all of our modern technology to? How about a deeper look into the philosophical and societal reasons why he failed? For an old genre like the biopic, it might be just what the doctor ordered.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Release Date: August 21, 2020 (VOD)
Taking place in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, Tesla provides merely a snapshot of Nikola Tesla’s (Ethan Hawke) life. At a running time of only 102 minutes, it would be nigh impossible to cover the entirety of Tesla’s life, so writer/director Michael Almereyda rightfully focuses more on the Current War between Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan).
Immediately from the start, there’s something a bit different with this biopic. What should be an otherwise tense scene between Edison and Tesla is undermined by everyone around the table eating ice cream from a waffle cone. The verbal fight quickly turns into the two inventors pushing their ice cream in each other’s faces before a narrator explains “this is not how it happened.”
Tesla takes the whole Fargo “This is a true story” joke and runs with it, and for the most part it works. It works best in the little moments sprinkled throughout the entire movie in the form of Tesla seeing inventions that haven’t yet been made that use electricity in his own time. The times where it doesn’t work is where whole scenes are devoted to the characters interacting with our modern technology. The scientific liberty is a bold choice for a biopic about a scientist that creates an anachronistic feel and makes one wonder how much of this can be believed? If the validity is being put to question, then can it even be called a biopic?
I’d still argue that Tesla can be considered a biopic but unlike most of the ones that have come before it. Whereas others have focused mostly on events, often successfully, Tesla decides to take a hard look at why the titular inventor failed. More philosophical concepts of the nature of science versus business and the ethics of capitalism are brought to light and shown how someone even as brilliant as Tesla cannot escape the evils of this world that only cares about profit and not helping the world at large.
Tesla isn’t exactly a misery fest, but there is definitely an undercurrent of sadness and tragedy throughout the entire movie. Even when successes are presented they are presented with a twinge of sadness. It’s a great look into the life of a man torn by his desire to do good and the inability of the world to support his attempts.
The tragedy of Tesla is no doubt bolstered by Ethan Hawke’s marvelous portrayal of him. He presents a quiet genius, constantly in thought, trying to swim against the current as hard as he can. Much like his subdued but powerful performance in First Reformed, Hawke has shown that he is without a doubt the leading candidate to take over as the new-Tom Hanks for Hollywood. Like all good biopics, the rest of the characters take their cue from Hawke and while some performances were better than others, none are as powerful as the leading man.
As I stated at the onset of this review, I’m not a newcomer to the history and tragedy of Tesla, so I wasn’t expecting to find anything new with this entry. Much to my surprise though there was enough pizazz and flourishes to bring something new to the story that made it an enjoyable ride. It might not be the most thrilling biopic around, but it’s got more than enough to keep even those lightly interested in science entertained.