TESLA – Review by Martha K. Baker

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This film biography begins with a man stroking a cat’s back, producing a spark. The petting also produces a question from the man: “Is nature a gigantic cat, and, if so, who scratches its back?” The questioner is Nikola Tesla, an inventor finally getting credit and, that, courtesy of a car bearing his name.

Tesla may be one of the most unheralded inventors to have played with electricity (unless you count two recent films about him). A Serbian-American, he was born in 1856 in Croatia and died in 1943. He was an electrical engineer known for inventing a motor using alternating current to supply electricity. His rival, Thomas Edison, however, believed that AC was a waste of time, especially compared to DC, his baby.

Ethan Hawke, remarkable in First Reformed, plays Tesla without a hint of a Serbian accent. In fact, Hawke’s Tesla mumbles and whispers. More bombastic, Kyle MacLachlan interprets Edison. Eve Hewson plays J. Pierpont Morgan’s daughter Ann, her love for Tesla unrequited. She narrates with terribly modern references to Google, for example. Comic Jim Gaffigan does a seriously credible job as George Westinghouse.

As director, Michael Almereyda, played with light, of course, given the subject matter of the film. Light on each face — whether sun or bulb or fire — adds interest when the dialogue cramps. As writer, Almereyda, lectures on coils and currents — causing the occasional nap.

Tesla, the film, does not start at crib and end in coffin. That’s a good thing but not always easy to follow. Instead of being on a double-bill with Alejandro Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which addressed the Tesla/Edison/Westinghouse triangle last year, Tesla should be shown with Marjane Satrapi’s imaginative Radioactive, which also plays with time and interstitial information.

Tesla is streaming on IFC.

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Martha K. Baker

Martha K. Baker

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.