What do the history books say about Nikola Tesla? I would venture a guess that most U.S. textbooks tend to sway in the direction of Thomas Edison, the father of what is now our electric system. Tesla himself an employee of Edison’s revolutionized and might have ultimately changed the world with his alternating current, but due ironically, to the need for more power, his vision never came to its full potential. Director Michael Almereyda has taken his fourth-wall-breaking style and infused it with Ethan Hawkes somber performance as Tesla, in a film much like it’s subject it can sometimes astound and other times perplex its viewer.
The film’s narrator, Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson) tells Teslas story in a modern format like it was being told from a college student’s presentation. While alternating to the story itself, a battle between Edison and Tesla’s minds as well as their monetary leverage to see which idea lasts. Kyle MacLachlan as Edison is a good balance of the innovator we’ve read about in books but is able to bring out the brutal capitalist side as well. It’s not until Tesla is introduced to George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan) that he can understand and witness first hand the costs that come with a visionary mind. Ethan Hawke does a wonderful job toeing the line of real and surrealism, at one point singing “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” to another where his subtlety stands out overall.
Director Micahel Almereyda is much like Tesla in his artistic choices, not cleaning up the rough parts of his film but allowing them to be as they are. You have some interesting stylistic choices that work beautifully, like using narration and fourth-wall-breaking, but then might have what could be described as lackluster green screen effects that simply look like they were outside the filmmaker’s budget to have showcased. Most of the cinematography is very beautiful, his use of lighting in certain scenes involving Tesla’s experiments strike like lightning. The music is also an alternating dance between contemporary to old-fashioned, which works well for the film’s intention of bringing Tesla to the modern world.
For myself, the issues lie in the unfinished, rough visuals of the movie. While they don’t happen at an astounding rate, when they are present I was thrown out of the film and more wondering why they chose to include green screen the likes of which I’ve not seen since Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”. But like Tesla, innovation can be messy, and while this could be a standout to draw attention away from the creativity of Almereyda, I couldn’t help but admire the ambitious take on America’s unsung inventor.
Overall I would recommend checking this out if you have a weekend free. It’s not the strongest film to come out of Sundance this year, but it has the heart and performances to push it over the edge and is worth watching.