TESLA: Ethan Hawke’s ‘Tragic Hero’ Tour de Force

Tesla movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert
photo courtesy of rogerebert.com

If you’re looking for a biopic of Nikola Tesla that will tell you he was born, made some grand innovations in electricity that have shaped our own current world, and that he died alone then this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a biopic that is as imaginative, mysterious, and enigmatic as the title character himself, then Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is just what the doctor ordered. It is an abstract look at the personal and professional history of one of history’s most troubling and unfortunate figures. It is also just another performance on the long list of great performances by Ethan Hawke whose brooding stare gives a glimpse of the madness that cohabited with the genius inside of Nikola Tesla.

The film’s strongest aspect besides its solid cast is the mise en scene. Immediately the viewer is sucked in by the costumes and set design that literally transport you to the Gilded Age. It is in this first scene where we meet Tesla as he dreamily roller skates around a palatial parlor with some friends and a violin player, all dressed impeccably in their turn of the century best. We also meet the narrator played by Eve Hewson who not only tells us the story but captivates us with her natural beauty as Anne Morgan, the daughter of J. P. Morgan. It is Anne who tells us about Tesla’s first run in with electricity when he received a static shock as a young boy while stroking his cat’s back. She narrates that it is Tesla’s desire to “stroke nature’s back” just as he did to his cat. Many have complained about the narration as Anne breaks the fourth wall, tell’s the audience that some of what they are seeing “most likely never happened”, and speaks over black and white photos as though she were narrating a PBS special. I heartily disagree. Anne’s narration is the perfect foundation for sorting out the facts in between the dramatic scenes and struggles we see Hawke endure as the tortured and mostly exploited genius from Serbia.

Being a big movie star, it is incredible to watch Ethan Hawke play Tesla as someone who is merely a pawn being pushed around by not just Thomas Edison(Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse(Jim Gaffigan) but also by the money men of the time. The turn of the century was a time when everyone was trying to get rich at any cost. Sadly, the film shows you how investors would use Tesla, not to support his visionary and groundbreaking ideas that had the chance to change the course of history, but to profit off of his inventions and leave him broke because he was not business savvy. As mentioned earlier, there are several scenes where Hawke is left brooding and sulking after he is either just finding out he has been swindled by investors or being berated and publicly humiliated by his bitter rival, Edison. Hawke’s scenes with Jim Gaffigan, in an excellent portrayal of George Westinghouse, are exceptional with Gaffigan actually overshadowing Hawke at times.

Much of the talk around this film has been about the strange ‘karaoke’ performance toward the end by Ethan Hawke. This scene, even more so than “Edison’s iphone” and the “Google searches”, shatters the conventional historical biopic structure. Hawke steps up to a contemporary microphone and in front of a screen that continues to change colors, he croons the 1980’s Tears For Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In his strange Serbian accent, this scene will certainly not bring Hawke any comparisons to Eve Hewson’s father but Hawke’s daring, sub-par singing is even more riveting. The audience is clearly forced to listen to the lyrics and see how they related to Nikola Tesla. ‘I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision.’ In so many ways this could be a motto or epitaph for a man who the world disregarded during his living years and now owes so much to his legacy.

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