Friday Film Review--"Tesla"
A new movie, which played at Sundance this winter and is now streaming, focuses on the life of legendary inventor Nikola Tesla.
Come to think of it, it’s not very focused—says Rick Brough, with this week’s Friday Film Review.
“Tesla” is a movie of interesting parts, which doesn’t come together as a satisfactory whole. Then again, maybe the film-makers never really wanted it to.
Nikola Tesla is a mythic figure these days—based on the romantic notion that the modern Age, birthed in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, could have had a different father.
Here, he’s played by Ethan Hawke as a brilliant, bashfully brooding character, talking in a hoarse whisper as if he is auditioning to be a Balkan Batman.
As the movie presents it, the young immigrant is a one-time employee of Thomas Edison, leaving when he feels the Wizard of Menlo Park hasn’t treated him fairly. He becomes Edison’s competitor, in the development of alternating current; he attempts to pioneer concepts such as wireless electricity; and ultimately his fertile mind runs aground, as he babbles about messages from Mars, or recording human thought.
But the story plays out like a string of vignettes—solemn, surreal or even goofy. To get some historical understanding, you have to check out a few Wikipedia entries.
Or for me, it was helpful that I had recently seen the 2017 movie, “The Current War.” It explained the business competition between Edison, whose direct current was cheaper but could only cover short distances, and George Westinghouse, drawing on Tesla’s genius, who offers alternating current that can span the continent. But Edison says AC is dangerous, and helps introduce the electric chair to prove it.
“Tesla” skims over this material, like it assumes you’ve seen the earlier movie. Legendary historical figures waltz in and out of the story. Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison (with a hairstyle and hearing problem that’s historically accurate) is a promoter who rides roughshod over people because it just doesn’t occur to him that behavior would be wrong.
Jim Gaffigan is a folksy George Westinghouse. We meet J.P. Morgan the blunt capitalist. His daughter tells Tesla’s story with the aid of Google. Sarah Bernhardt is introduced with a synth-pop soundtrack—a way of telling us, maybe, that here was the Lady Gaga of her age.
And Hawke, in character, launches into a karaoke version of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to rule the World.”
The director is Michael Almereyda, who’s had films at Sundance going back to the mid-90’s. His artificial, anachronistic approach is meant to say, I guess, that Tesla forged the world we still live in today. Myself, I couldn’t get into the blend of silliness and attempts to be quite serious.
But you might like this kind of thing—if this is the kind of thing you like.
For me, the wattage of “Tesla” just gets up to two-and-a-half on a scale of five. For the Friday Film Review, I’m Rick Brough.