REVIEW: ‘Tesla’ is far from terrific

Nikola Tesla is a man whose legacy has nearly made him into a sort of mythical figure. This film, directed by Michael Almereyda, attempts to capture Tesla’s career with an artistic flair.

“Tesla” follows the titular character, played by Ethan Hawke, in the middle of a corporate competition between Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). The two are trying to take hold of the electric industry and Tesla’s ideas are coming into play.

However, unlike those two, Tesla was thinking ahead of just the competition of electricity. As the film shows, he has a lot of ideas that go beyond just lighting a bulb.

One can appreciate “Tesla” for being a movie that’s different from a typical biopic. Characters break the fourth wall and there are some surreal moments that are exaggerated or seem otherworldly.

Despite those stylistic choices to give the film an artistic identity, though, the movie lacks a more focused approach on its main subject. The movie has a tendency to go more into detail about what Tesla did, rather than who the man was.

As a result, even with its quirks, the film feels rather by-the-books as it highlights Tesla’s work with Edison, to his own experiments later in life. The movie just misses out in exploring Tesla’s passion.

Courtesy IFC Films

The film would have benefited from an approach like that shown in 2018’s “Gateway to Eternity.” Starring Willem Dafoe, that film was about the life of Vincent van Gogh.

While that movie did showcase Gogh’s work, it was much more about why he did his paintings and the passion that drove him in life. That exploration of the human condition is what was really needed in “Tesla.”

Even with its unorthodox approach, “Tesla” isn’t compelling enough. Fortunately, the cast does help salvage the picture somewhat.

MacLachlan is solid as the stoic Edison and Gaffigan has good moments as Westinghouse. The main responsibility falls upon Hawke, though, and he does fine work.

This isn’t Hawke’s best performance, but his portrayal here brings the eccentric historical figure to life well enough. The European accent Hawke puts on is rather rough, but the film as a whole is benefited by his screen presence.

“Tesla” is a unique biopic with a capable cast, but unless one is interested in this historical period, it’s easy to skip. The film simply doesn’t excel at capturing the fascinating aspects of who the main character was. 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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