TESLA (2020)

(Hulu/VOD) Was the world asking for another biopic about Nicolas Tesla? No, at least I wasn’t until I heard this one was helmed by cult filmmaker Michael Almereyda (NADJA, THE ETERNAL).

Michael Almereyda’s has recruited his regulars to bring TELSA to life: Ethan Hawke is Tesla, Kyle MacLaughlin is Edison, Jim Gaffigan is Westinghouse, and there are several other established, white, male actors. Eve Hewson (THE KNICK) is J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, who serves as the narrator in-and-out-of-time, trying to convince the viewer how Tesla’s current ranking in the cultural consciousness is unforgivably woeful (which goes against everything I know).

While it often looks and feels like an early naughts PBS docudrama, where the re-enactors often break the fourth wall to educate the viewers through a hazy digital video lens, Almereyda ladles out numerous idiosyncrasies to try to keep the audience off-kilter, such as roller skating scenes; anachronistic ice cream cones; obvious rear-projection with intentionally misplaced lighting setups; fictional interactions where Hewson’s character then informs the viewers that the scene ‘likely didn’t happen this way’; even a full-blown musical number.

Those bits of whimsy keep the film breezily entertaining. I know if my hungover high school science teacher screened it for class one day, I’d feel like a lucky boy (although I’d expect the teacher to make the requisite number of caveats that this biopic has ‘fictional elements for dramatic effect’). Despite the (presumably intentional) cheap sheen of the biopic, the blocking and camerawork is top-notch, and no one phones in a performance. I’m especially fond of Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s (GIRLS, BLOW THE MAN DOWN) loose turn as Tesla’s right-hand man.

That said, in the age of modern re-enactments like BIZEBEE ’17 and CASTING JONBENET, it feels like TESLA isn’t formally daring enough, doesn’t push itself far enough, which is a shame as Almereyda is known for grounded weirdness. However, this film is based on his first screenplay, which may account for why the tomfoolery feels quaint, as opposed to a grand remark on the unreliable nature of recreating history. Given the times we’re currently living in, perhaps a safely odd, comfortably unreliable biopic is what you need right now.

By the way, if you’re looking for some more fact/fiction-blended Tesla works, I highly recommend Samantha Hunt’s novel THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE.