The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Digital] - TESLA | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review [Digital] - TESLA

tesla review
Unconventional biopic of electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, Hannah Gross, Josh Hamilton

tesla movie poster


"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good." So goes one of the oldest recorded passages of literature. As far back as the 8th century BC, writers were documenting the importance of light, but it would be another 27 centuries before man truly conquered and harnessed its gifts. In the late 19th century AD, two men - American Thomas Edison and Croatian immigrant Nikola Tesla - would bring light to the world through their development of electricity. As writer/director Michael Almereyda's unconventional biopic Tesla strives to point out, the Croatian may have ultimately made the greater impact on the world (we're literally powered by his work today), but the American claimed the headlines. In movie geek terms, it's like the guy who invented Betamax prospering over the creator of VHS.


tesla review

Playing out over a period of roughly two decades, Tesla begins in 1884 with its titular genius (Ethan Hawke, who like Tesla, refuses to indulge in his profession's more superficial elements and thus has yet to receive the recognition he deserves) working under the man who would become his greatest rival, Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, delivering his best ever work outside of David Lynch collaborations). "Nothing grows in the shadow of an oak," is how Tesla justifies quitting Edison and striking out on his own. Where Edison had pioneered and promoted direct current (DC), Tesla was convinced that alternate current (AC) was the way forward. The film follows Tesla as he struggles to fund his research, largely due to his inability to kiss the right asses, and the various successes and failures he enjoyed and endured.

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The biopic is one of the least appealing genres as while historical figures may have achieved great things, very few of them led the sort of lives that make for great drama. Nikola Tesla is a case in point. He may have literally changed our way of life, but by all accounts he wasn't exactly a winning personality, which is why he struggled to win favour with America's captains of industry, who then as today, were more impressed by showmanship than intelligence ("Tesla, you don't understand our American humour," is Edison's early critique of his Balkan rival).


tesla review

Thankfully, Almereyda finds a way to turn Tesla's story into a cinematic delight by focussing not on the man himself but by finding a way to celebrate and integrate his achievements through a postmodern storytelling. Fittingly for a biopic of a pioneer of electricity, this is a movie that crackles with energy, doing for the current war what James Gray's The Lost City of Z did for the race to map South America. Almereyda adds anachronistic details to remind us that so much of what we take for granted today is owed to the brilliant mind of his subject - bored industrialists scroll through smartphones; vacuum cleaners hum in the corners of empty function rooms; a ball is soundtracked by electronic dance music; and in a climactic show-stopper, Tesla performs a karaoke version of Tears for Fears' 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World'.

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The most ingenious decision on Almereyda's part is to have Tesla's story narrated by Anne (daughter of JP) Morgan (Eve Hewson), the woman who loved him, somewhat unrequitedly thanks to Tesla's intellectually driven solipsism. This allows Almereyda to toss objectivity out the window and instead paint the various players as villains viewed through the judgemental and sometimes jealous eyes of the smitten Anne, who often breaks the fourth wall to issue complaints to the audience regarding our failure to fully appreciate the inventor. At points she invents fictional scenarios - like a meeting between Edison and Tesla in which the American confesses that the Croat was right all along regarding the superiority of AC over DC - to further illustrate the injustices Tesla endured. In Anne, there's an anger towards America's failure to appreciate Tesla, but equally towards his refusal to play the game. Her narration also lends the film a caustic sense of humour, like when she imagines an encounter between Tesla and actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), refusing to conceal her contempt for the woman she views as a love rival ("It was her second farewell tour. Or was it her third?").


tesla review

The most important element to filmmaking is light, so it's fitting that Tesla gets his due for harnessing such energy in a movie as cinematically rich as this one. There's a thrilling sequence in which Tesla constructs a giant 'Tesla coil' in a field in Colorado, wild electricity crackling all around him like Baron Frankenstein bringing life to the dead. As a young local man looks on in disbelief, it's a scene that makes us think about how something we don't give a second thought to today must have seemed like the work of a wizard to those who witnessed its birth. In the aforementioned meeting with Bernhardt, Tesla shines a spotlight on her face, illuminating her famous features, and in this moment Almereyda acknowledges arguably cinema's greatest debt to Tesla, the ability to meld the science of light with the appeal of natural beauty to create the key image of the visual medium - a close up of a beautiful actress's face. Thanks Nikola.

Tesla is on UK Digital September 21st.




2020 movie reviews