Sundance 2020: Tesla

Ethan Hawke appears in Tesla by Michael Almereyda, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Cara Howe.

Tesla may not mark the first time that Nikola Tesla’s story has been brought to the screen but it is certainly the most innovative version.

There are so many things that a Tesla film could focus on.  However, this one is presented in the most comical fashion.  We get Tesla singing into a microphone!  There’s no denying that Ethan Hawke can sing but it was certainly a surprise.  But on a serious note, the film chooses to rein in on a few areas while telling the story.  The first is the rival with fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan).  The second is with J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne Morgan, who also serves as narrator.  Finally, there is the development of Alternating Current (AC) as a source of electricity.

I’m not going to dive into the chronology of the inventor’s life.  That’s what books and Wikipedia are for.  When we first meet him, he’s working for Thomas Edison’s Machine Works.  The two don’t see eye to eye on anything and so Tesla is soon off to work for George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan).  Eventually, Tesla finds funding from J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz).  Funny enough, the film break’s the fourth wall when Anne Morgan introduces the main players.  She goes through how many Google results each one has.  It’s rather bold and innovative for this sort of film.  In some ways, it also becomes a docu-drama in that regard.  But mostly, it’s nothing but drama.

Michael Almereyda’s direction of Tesla serves in stark contrast to Marjorie Prime three years ago.  The relationship between Tesla and Edison is presented in a comical manner.  Still, the fact that Google search results are included is what takes the comedy to an entirely different level!  That’s not to say that this is a bad thing because it isn’t.  It is, however, the most surprising part of the film outside of Ethan Hawke picking up the microphone as the inventor to sing “Everybody Wants To Rule the World.”

Drunk History serves as an influence for this film.  Let me repeat this in case you didn’t understand it the first time: Drunk History serves as an influence!  It was perhaps the most surprising piece of information to come from the Q&A following the second screening.  Don’t worry–Jim Gaffigan hit all the marks but I wouldn’t expect any different from the comedian-turned-dramatic-actor.  Gaffigan’s screentime is minimal as Tesla’s boss but it’s another showcase for his dramatic chops.

The fact that Tesla takes inspiration in its script from Drunk History says everything we need to know about this film.  This cannot be said enough!

CAST:  Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Eve Hewson, Donnie Keshawarz, Josh Hamilto, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Rebecca Dayan

Tesla held its world premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres program. Grade: 3.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.