The biopic is far from the most complex genre in cinema, still it often seems like an anomaly. Hollywood will never tire from pumping them out on a regular basis, and yet only a handful manage to influence the zeitgeist of their time. Thanks to the genre becoming standardized, the mere prospect of making a biopic or historical retelling comes with predetermined hurdles. Audiences know what to expect from everything between concept and execution. With all these obstacles preset, director and writer Michael Almereyda chooses to navigate in a completely different direction with Tesla.
Having premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Tesla guides viewers through the rise and demise of one of history’s most remarkable inventors, Nikola Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke). The Austrian-American engineer is famous for pioneering the use of alternating currents in electric systems. History buffs will surely take interest in any narrative-driven Tesla project, but to be brutally honest, this topic is perfect for the typical Hollywood “Oscar bait” machine. However, Almereyda lives up to his defying reputation and pulls a rare feat: making a praiseworthy film not by following a proven formula but by breaking and even challenging the norms of a saturated genre.
Tesla takes abundant liberties for a biopic as it follows the inventor in the most pivotal moments of his life. Starting at the spark of his notorious rivalry with Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan) and leading up to his unhinged days chasing the most insane ideas for his time, what the film traces is existential beyond Tesla’s career, reaching the depths of his perplexing psyche. Any director with enough resources could have made a film concerned with the achievements of Tesla, but Almereyda is much more concerned with the extremities of his soul. When this mission statement is brought to life by utilizing the ever most peculiar methods, one gets the undeniable magic of cinema through and through.
Many will be quick to draw comparisons to the biopics of directors Adam Mckay and Dexter Fletcher. Tesla constantly breaks the fourth wall, features hypothetical scenes that are far from what factually took place in history, and even flows with synth-driven musical choices that jolt perfectly with this vision of a period piece. The narrative itself surprisingly isn’t guided by Tesla, but by Anne Morgan (the daughter of famed banker J.P. Morgan played by the endearing Eve Hewson). Possibly the greatest flame that Tesla let slip through his fingers, Morgan is at the wheel of this meta-commentary, literally at one point feeding facts and tidbits to the viewer via a MacBook – all while in her period-accurate attire. Amusing at first, Hewson brilliantly deepens this role, one jumping back and forth from the fourth wall, as the heart of Tesla. With all that Almereyda is toying with, one will always be enamored with the unfamiliarity of it all thanks to Hewson’s clever performance.
Hawke unsurprisingly anchors the film with gravitas and precision. Almereyda’s script both coincides with what history knows of Telsa while leaving Hawke enough room to explore. Hawke plays the historical figure with almost no burden, capturing who Tesla was to the people closest to him rather than as an icon. A crucial element absent from most biopics. His energy is reserved and subtle, and seeing him gradually construct a commanding screen presence with these qualities is engrossing. It’s especially entertaining when matched with the contrasting performances of MacLachlan, Hewson, and comedian Jim Gaffigan.
Every emotion is elevated by the work of Good Time cinematographer Sean Price Williams. His keen eye for lighting and color combined with Almereyda’s take give Tesla almost trance-like qualities. One will just get so lost within the inventiveness (no pun intended) on screen. Undoubtedly one of the strongest qualities of the film, the viewer is steered into feeling as if they are seeing the world as Tesla saw it himself. This is executed through various offbeat choices in lenses and framing. Tesla was always most driven by the literal electricity in the air, and this is creatively expressed in some very satisfying ways.
More notable and worthy of its own discussion is the use of projected and what seem like beautifully painted backdrops. To convey significance and the passing of time or location, characters are juxtaposed in front of tactile backdrops showing cities, countrysides, and the unpredictable earth. It adds to the meta while reinforcing the grand perspective of Tesla. Putting a dedicated Hawke in front of such imagery via abstract methods is guaranteed to draw eyes, but Almereyda isn’t in over his head. It’s essentially controlled chaos, Tesla’s own point of view. The projections (powered by electricity no less) usher in his most character-defining moments. Some images inexplicable and some unruly, though they are just that, controlled energy for the audience. It mirrors exactly what Telsa sought out his entire career, finding more and more ways to harvest what had been deemed uncontrollable.
Tesla‘s unorthodox nature will be jarring to some, maybe even inciting resemblance to skit programming. The simple settings and backdrops, witty humor, and metastory make this somewhat of a fair argument. Even with featuring a hilariously unironic, thematically tune music number, the skit comparison is cheap. Tesla is never too self-indulgent and even through all its madness, doesn’t take itself for granted. This grandeur is fueled by filmmakers who unmistakably believe in this film.
In truth, this feels like the next step to reinvigorate the biopic after atypical films like Vice and Rocketman. Though the unconventional storytelling can make it easy to get lost in the historical jargon, one will never want to hop off this ride. The energy this film exudes to not make the viewer ever question characters in the past pulling out smartphones or the use of stellar synth beats – one just simply goes with it. Underneath the glorious surface is a potent message that will give anyone an incentive to further research Nikola Tesla and contemplate the power vested at their own fingertips. This isn’t merely a history lesson, but a lesson in perseverance.