Nikola Tesla biopic sees a world his namesakes seek to create

Ethan Hawke portrays inventor who clashed with Thomas Edison

Electric truck makers Nikola and Tesla make news almost daily as they seek to transform over-the-road transportation. A new biopic on the late 19th and early 20th century inventor from whom they take their names suggests Nikola Tesla saw the world they envision.

IFC Films expects to release “Tesla” on Aug. 21. The biopic premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

Hollywood Reporter reviewer David Rooney says director Michael Almereyda created an “aptly livewire account of an unknowable outsider whose ideas about a world connected by wireless technology now make him seem like a field-leading visionary.”

An electrical and mechanical engineer and futurist, Tesla is best known for contributing to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply. 

Trevor Milton, whose Nikola Corp. startup expects to sell battery-electric over-the-road trucks in Europe in 2021, tweeted a 164th birthday shoutout last Friday.

Hawke called brilliant in Tesla role

Veteran actor Ethan Hawke, whose earlier films include “Training Day” and “Dead Poets Society,” portrays Tesla, the Serbian immigrant who worked for — and against — American inventor Thomas Edison.

Kyle MacLachlan plays Edison, who scoffed at Tesla’s AC ideas when Tesla briefly worked for him.

Rooney calls the film “commercially challenging, though the brilliant, intensely contained performance of Ethan Hawke in the title role, losing himself in an introverted man accurately described as living in his head, will be a strong selling point.” 

‘Solitude of the restless thinker’

The 2017 historical drama “The Current War” touched on the Edison-Tesla relationship. In that film, Benedict Cumberbatch played Edison competing with George Westinghouse over which electric power delivery system would prevail in the United States. 

As Tesla, Hawke gets credit for the immigrant’s achievements and his failures. 

“But the film,” Rooney writes, “also digs into the solitude of the restless thinker, ingeniously employing as narrator Anne Morgan, [played by Eve Hewson], a woman whose unreciprocated love for Tesla doesn’t cloud her perceptive read on the self-sabotaging pride that existed alongside his heightened abilities.”

As the daughter of banking magnate J.P. Morgan, Hewson’s character tells of Tesla’s childhood experience of seeing sparks shoot from the back of his black kitten as he stroked its fur. He recalled that occurrence while watching lightning crack the sky during a thunderstorm, prompting him to wonder: “Is nature a gigantic cat, and if so, who strokes its back?”

European reserve meets American brashness

Rooney describes Anne Morgan’s view of the rivalry between Tesla and Edison. Tesla’s old-world European reserve clashed with Edison’s American brashness.

“Tesla appears quietly appalled by Edison’s greed, his fingers in so many developmental pies that he was simply too busy to give the scientific and mathematical calculations behind AC the serious consideration to make him understand that it could work,” Rooney wrote.

The film is more soulfully philosophical than focused on a science lesson.

“Almereyda [the director] isn’t aiming to illuminate all the details of the inventor’s work, rather to capture the infinite scope of his curiosity about technological innovations that suggest he was dreaming of the world in which we now live.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.