The Quarantine Stream: 'Tesla' is the Cure for the Common Biopic

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Tesla

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: A biopic of Nikola Tesla that avoids the standard biopic trappings.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Tesla had a very, very limited release, and now it’s streaming on Hulu – which is the perfect opportunity for people to discover it. The story of Nikola Tesla has been covered on film before – be it in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, or the recent The Current War. But Michael Almereyda’s take on the great inventor bucks tradition and goes for a weirder, more surreal approach to Tesla’s life. It’s an approach other filmmakers making biopics would be wise to try for themselves rather than giving us the same old boring crap. 

Whenever I tell someone about Tesla, I make sure to start off by mentioning how unconventional it is. I mention that there’s a scene in this film where Nikola Tesla, as played by Ethan Hawke, performs karaoke (he sings the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”). And then there’s a scene where Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) get into an argument and start smashing ice cream cones into each other’s faces. And oh yeah, the entire movie is narrated by someone surfing Google.

Like I said: unconventional. Telsa is telling a story that was recently covered in The Current War, with Tesla becoming the enemy of Edison as they duke it out for electrical supremacy. But while The Current War – which really wasn’t that bad – followed a rather by-the-numbers approach to the story, Tesla does anything but. Employing projected, obviously fake background and not really worrying about anachronisms, writer-director Michael Almereyda effectively sends an electric charge into the biopic formula. It’s ambitious, it’s weird, it’s pretty damn great.

All of this is anchored by yet another great performance from Ethan Hawke, who embraces and embodies Tesla’s brilliance and mania. Hawke also wisely avoids leaning into Tesla’s accent – there’s a trace of it there, but the actor is more interested in the man’s awkwardness and his inability to connect with other human beings rather than trying to cobble together a clunky impersonation.

Hampered at every turn, Tesla is a brilliant inventor who just can’t really click with humanity. Unlike Edison, who knows how to be a bit of a showman, Tesla wants his work to speak for itself – but that’s easier said than done. The sad fact is that the real Tesla died penniless in a hotel, his body undiscovered for two days. His work fell into obscurity, only to be rediscovered – and praised – years later. It’s fitting that the first real biopic all about him would be as unconventional and strange as he apparently was. Best of all, Tesla is a movie that admits it doesn’t have all the answers.

“The historical record is in many ways obscure, unreliable, incomplete,” Almereyda said. “Acknowledging that became part of the story, an essential part. And I felt it was worthwhile to bring in a character asking questions I continue to ask about him. Trying to get closer to him and not succeeding—that failure became part of the story.”

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