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“Tesla” Sees Ethan Hawke Play The Groundbreaking Inventor

Ethan Hawke is an actor capable of doing just about anything. We’ve seen him tackle, over the years, nearly all genres and all sizes of production, winning acclaim consistently. Here, with Tesla, he’s apparently going the prestige biopic route, though looks can be deceiving. While the appearance here is of an independent take on what would usually be considered Oscar bait, instead we have a rather off-beat and even daring at times remix of a biographical tale. There are missteps from time to time, but the willingness to buck convention, as well as Hawke’s committed work, make it something to seek out.

The film is, on the surface at least, a biopic of Nikola Tesla (Hawke), the inventor whose eventual breakthroughs in transmitting electrical power and light would change the world. However, he’s long been portrayed as a pawn in a battle for power (no pun intended) between men like Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Here, his butting of heads with Edison is depicted, for sure, but so too is his interaction with the wealthy J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson). Anne even narrates the story, utilizing the modern technology that Tesla’s work would eventually allow to be made. It’s a modern touch to a period piece that certainly could use the spark. At its core, we’re watching Tesla attempt to change the world, while being such a Futurist that he can barely interact in the current one he lives in. Michael Almereyda writes and directs, with the supporting cast including the likes of Rebecca Dayan, Donnie Keshawarz, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Lois Smith. John Paesano composed the score, while the cinematography is by Sean Price Williams.

Imagination runs wild here, helping the movie be more than just a garden variety biopic. The use of computers and modern technology by Anne when detailing elements of Tesla’s life, as well as Edison and Westinghouse, is a spark of genius, as is her occasionally explaining that scenes did not happen in real life, often indicating the most dramatic ones were fictionalized. Then, there’s Michael Almereyda’s choice to have Ethan Hawke do karaoke towards the end. Fro some, it might be laughable and misguided. For others, it could be shockingly emotional. I fell somewhere in between, but in keeping with the theme of layering in the modern world, it works better than you’d expect it to.

Tesla ultimately lives and dies not just on its creativity, but on the work put forth by Hawke. He commits to Nikola Tesla being a man so caught up in the future that the present is barely a factor to him. The look in his eyes, the puzzlement at how others don’t share his views, it’s all there. He’s easily the highlight of the film, even when the relationship with Anne Morgan is sometimes a little bland, despite Eve Hewson also turning in good work. This is clearly about Almereyda’s vision and Hawke’s performance, and even though the former can be hit or miss as a filmmaker, he’s on to something here, armed with another unimpeachable turn from the latter.

Now playing, Tesla manages to upend what we expect out of a biopic just enough to be worthy of a recommendation. After being a side character recently in The Current War, the mercurial inventor gets his own showcase here, with Ethan Hawke going all in to give him some life. It’s a work with flaws (outside of Hawke’s performance), but the central concept and bursts of creativity manage to lift things up. Don’t expect Academy Award worthy fare, but if you’re at all curious about Tesla as a man, this is worth giving a look to.

Be sure to check out Tesla, available to watch right now!

(Photos courtesy of IFC Films)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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