Sometimes people can change the world without becoming incredibly famous.
In the musical “Hamilton,” there are a ton of references to the fact that Alexander Hamilton shaped the U.S. government into what it is today but many everyday people — before the musical came out — didn’t know him as well as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.
Nowadays, Nikola Tesla is known by more people than he used to be. But he’s known mostly for his name being used on Elon Musk’s car company or the fact that David Bowie played a fictionalized version of him in “The Prestige.”
Most people can’t tell you what Tesla is famous for.
Some would say he “invented electricity” but that’s not entirely accurate.
Most of what I know about this historical figure came from the movie “The Current War,” which I watched a few months ago. Nicolas Hoult played Tesla in a supporting role in a film that really focused on Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, two titans who were battling in the 1800s to see who could have their form of electricity (direct current or alternating current) become commonplace and dominate the market.
You know, Tesla worked briefly for Edison at his company. Edison is who we learned about in second grade. Edison became rich form his inventions. Tesla struggled for money for most of his life and even was a ditch digger for a brief period of time.
Director Michael Almereyda tells much of the same story as “The Current War,” in his film “Tesla,” but with the lesser known inventor as the central figure. He teams up with Ethan Hawke as Tesla and Kyle MacLachlan as Edison, two actors he previously worked with in his superb retelling of “Hamlet” in 2000.
Almereyda tells his story in an unconventional way, having it narrated by Tesla’s love interest, the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan. She breaks the fourth wall, telling us about the Google results of Tesla versus Edison and often it feels like a high school documentary lots of historical explanation. It really gets odd toward the “climax” of the film (or as close as you can get in this movie) when Hawke sings a karaoke version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, dressed up as Tesla. It’s poignant but it’s also quite strange.
I’m not sure Almereyda’s film succeeded 100 percent. I kind of loved this movie and yet I kind of hated it. It takes risks and it made me think, but its meandering plot with its strict adherence to historical accuracy felt more like reading a textbook than watching a grand feature.
If you love history, this one might be for you. And there is a central theme: that Tesla’s pursuit of brilliance and world-changing inventions might have completely occurred during his lifetime, but the work he did let to further breakthroughs that changed the world. He died penniless, but not forgotten.
I know movie theaters are closed right now, but this is a film that’s better watched at home and probably by yourself. You don’t want to glance over at your yawning partner who is bored to tears by your rental choice.
The film lacks a real electric charge but you can see the tiny sparks in Hawke’s performance. I mildly enjoyed this film, but I preferred “The Current War.”