It’s funny how easily one can dread a biopic being absolutely typical, predictable, and nothing special. I confess I wasn’t too fascinated in seeing a film about Nikola Tesla’s life, starring Ethan Hawke as the man himself. It’s not that I don’t like the subject matter, but I can easily picture that kind of film being a complete slog. However, ten minutes in, Eve Hewson as J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne Morgan, wearing 19th Century clothes by the way, pulls out a MacBook Pro and searches up photos of Tesla while narrating straight to the camera. This strange tackiness will continue throughout Tesla, a biopic whose style is a complete hit or miss, depending on your tastes.
Minimal Sets Leads to a Documentary Approach
It’s obvious that director Michael Almereyda worked with a low budget on Tesla. In many scenes, the size and detail of each set is minimized to just simple rooms, whereas the exteriors are often done with a clear painting or green screen as a backdrop, with the actor standing in front. The lighting gives away the painting as a flat surface, and the filmmakers make no effort in hiding them, almost like it’s all intentional. Again, this will be a hit or miss aesthetic, perhaps in a similar vein as Lars von Trier’s Dogville, a film where buildings are fully replaced with chalk marks. But unlike Dogville, Tesla just doesn’t feel experimental enough, nor does it feel like its aesthetic has a narrative purpose.
Perhaps it’s done to serve its documentary-esque storytelling. The narrative often halts so that Hewson can narrate information for historical context, with plenty of old photographs and sketches to present via slide projector. At times, it almost reminded me of Willem Dafoe narrating about American history in Vox Lux.
On a technical level, Almereyda playing around with Tesla is all very fascinating and different from your typical biopic. What still confuses me, though, is whether or not this was all in service of something, because I’m still not quite sure what the film is aiming to do in terms of story and commentary.
With No Clear Agenda, The Screenplay and Pacing Falters
Despite competent performances from Hawke, Hewson, and Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison, the film never has a clear agenda or end goal. What does it have to say about Tesla? About his rivalry with Edison? About the industry? About the country at the time? It flirts once or twice with the idea of idealism vs. capitalism but it never fully commits to picking a side or making a point.
For this reason, the screenplay feels like a bunch of quirky scenes, too dedicated in its documentary style and not invested enough in actual character development and story growth. Every once in a while, you get a scene that’s really well put together or one that is totally preposterous – there’s one in the last fifteen minutes that’s complete utter batshit. However, in the end, none of them build on one another and are stitched together unevenly, which deeply affects the pacing. Even some chapters in Tesla’s life are glossed over by the narration, instead of being shown as part of its narrative.
A History CliffsNotes with Style
Tesla feels like a grad student’s thesis film for their history class. It’s an interesting little experiment with moments of spark, even if it lacks a current, a driving story, to keep me compelled.
Even with the uneven pacing and admittedly bad green screen shots, the actors try their best with the material given, and the stylistic editing and quirky narrations held my curiosity. I would recommend it to folks who are solely interested in seeing a new way to change up the biopic genre for educational (not entertainment) purposes.
Tesla premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available in theaters and On Demand August 21, 2020.