By Christian DiMartino
There are a lot of biopics out there. Some attempt to do something unique with the story they’re given, rather than just telling the story as it was. Others just tell the story like it is. It’s easy to see why someone would tell a story like The Theory of Everything the way they did. It’s a story that is strong enough to work on its own, and plus, in some cases, it’s difficult to spice up a story like that. In terms of unconventional biopics, the big one that comes to mind is Paul Schrader’s unsung masterpiece, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. They go either way- I am fine with a conventional biopic, as long as the story is good, but it’s always refreshing to see the writers and filmmakers go further.
With that said, I am recommending Tesla based on the fact that it takes more narrative liberties than any biopic I have seen in a long time. For many, this will be a wildly uneven experience. In fact, it probably is anyways, because whenever the film isn’t telling the story of Nikola Tesla in a straight-forward manner, the results are pretty nutty. But in terms of telling this story, the film’s approach is too interesting for me to ignore.
Last year found the release of The Current War, a film that was shelved due to the controversy of Harvey Weinstein. It also revolved around Thomas Edison, Tesla, and George Westinghouse’s quest for the power surge. A film that I also skipped, because I assumed it would be, you guessed it, a conventional biopic. Within minutes of Tesla, you’ll realize that is not the case here.
Here Tesla is played by Ethan Hawke, the four time Oscar nominee (and should’ve been an Oscar winner for First Reformed, for which he was egregiously snubbed of a nomination) who just keeps getting better and better, it seems. He’s excellent here too, in a rather restrained but nonetheless effective performance. Set in the 1800s, Tesla follows Tesla as he interacts with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, also strong) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) during, again, the “Current War,” and it also follows Tesla’s breakthroughs in transmitt. It also follows his interactions with Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of financier J. P. Morgan.
Anne Morgan serves as the narrator here, and it’s with this character that the film makes… well, it’s second unusual move. Following a debate between Tesla and Edison, which ends with them sticking ice cream cones in each other’s faces (yes), we cut to Morgan, dressed in old timey clothing and in an old setting. And we’re immediately thrown off whenever she pulls out her MacBook, and begins chronicling the life of Tesla via Google and Google Images.
These touches will not work for everyone, because in what is otherwise a serious story, they take us out of the story to provide whimsy. But… I liked these touches because I am not sure if I would have found particularly interesting without them. I am not one for history, and I probably never will be. There are stretches of Tesla that didn’t hold me in its grip as well as others.
The performances are good, and the story is a good one, but it’s not all fascinating… hence why these touches worked for me. Tesla is not a great film, but it is a good one, mostly because I admired the risks that it took. It’s more than likely going to divide people, and at times I wondered if I was divided. But tell me, will you ever see another 1800s historical biopic that features a soulful rendition of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World? Chances are, probably not.