On the surface, it would make sense that premier inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) should have spent some part of their careers working together—creating and mass producing all manner of technology to better the lives of Americans from coast to coast. What in fact happened, as is detailed in The Current War, is that the two spent years at war in a cutthroat competition to see who would supply light and power to the country on a city-by-city basis. The map that showed where their companies made light bulbs work looked like a war room map with white bulbs representing one warring party and red the other. And somewhere in their midst danced a strange, young genius immigrant named Nikolai Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who had better ideas than either of these men about how to electrify America, but because he was odd, broke and spoke with an accent, no one took him seriously.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and produced by Martin Scorsese, The Current War is being released with the subtitle Director’s Cut, because the film premiered two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival in a cut that was apparently supervised by a distributor by the name of Harvey Weinstein. Once the film was sold off, it was given back to Gomez-Rejon, who restored it to his original vision. I don’t know the differences, but what I saw was still something that felt a bit overblown if not without merit. The challenge is, of course, to make this battle between direct current and alternating current technologies seem interesting, so both Edison and Westinghouse put on elaborate displays of their ideas for the press, while feeding sometimes direct lies about their competitor’s systems, even going so far as to say that Westinghouse’s designs could result in death.
The film does an admirable job detailing the relationships both men had with their wives—Tuppence Middleton plays Mary Edison, who Edison left alone while he worked to all hours on a regular basis. Katherine Waterston plays Marguerite Westinghouse, from whom George was rarely separated. Both are portrayed as not just companions but actual contributors to the process of cracking the technologies’ flaws. Truth be told, Edison seems more devoted to his personal secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland).
In the film and in real life, all roads lead to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago (which affords the filmmakers some stunning opportunities to re-create World’s Fair-era Chicago), whose organizers took bids to supply electricity to the fair. Let the scrambling commence. Meanwhile on the fringes, Tesla fights just to be heard within the Westinghouse company, where he worked for a time.
The Current War has impressive production design and costuming, without question, but Cumberbatch frequently overplays some aspect of this performance. Shannon fares better, giving Westinghouse a fragile soul and a sweet attachment to his wife, while never letting go of his killer’s instinct for business. I liked the portrait of Edison as a hypocrite who refused to sell his technology to anyone wishing to weaponize it, but when he needed cash, took on a commission to design a humane means of executing someone on death row, resulting in the first electric chair. The film is deeply flawed in large portions, but tells us a war story that we don’t frequently see, and it is sometimes curious and frequently interesting—a mild recommendation.
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