Review: “The Current War”

2 out of 5 stars.

The story of the war on the currents is actually a very illuminating one (pun intended), although you wouldn’t know it based on “The Current War,” the film from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon that dramatizes that event, spanning from 1880 to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  The movie squanders its top-notch cast and a dramatic true story that begs to be put on screen, resulting in a film that, informative though it is, lacks direction and emotion.  And this is after reshoots conducted since the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017; originally slated to be domestically distributed by the Weinstein Company, it was a victim of the Harvey Weinstein abuse scandal that rocked that awards season, and is only just seeing the light of day again after the rights were purchased by 101 Studios.

The film is primarily focused on the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon).  Edison is a proponent of using direct current (DC) electric power, although it is more expensive and more limited in its reach.  Westinghouse is out to prove that alternating current (AC) is both cheaper and has a longer range, but Edison’s claims that AC is potentially deadly could smear his campaign.  Their years-long battle culminates in a race to see who will win the contract to power the Chicago World’s Fair.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in “The Current War”

Much of the war between Edison and Westinghouse is waged on the publicity front, with the pair never really coming face-to-face until they share a moment at the end of the movie.  While their work dominates their focus, they both face personal challenges.  The egotistical Edison, who often neglects his family to spend time in his lab, is shaken by the sudden death of his wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton).  Westinghouse, meanwhile, who is supported in his work by his wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), is disturbed by the accidental death by electrical shock of his friend and colleague Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend).  Both of these incidents seek to somewhat endear these larger-than-life figures to the audience, but they never fully do.  And that’s not the fault of the actors.  Cumberbatch’s Edison provokes equal laughs and jeers with his snarky comebacks and underhanded dealings; he’s an interesting character, but not one the audience can readily root for.  Meanwhile Shannon isn’t given enough material worthy of his talents.  Westinghouse isn’t as flashy as Edison, although Shannon gives him an everyman quality that is a nice contrast to Edison.  The rest of the supporting cast don’t have any great moments either.  Nicholas Hoult portrays Nikola Tesla, the immigrant who initially worked for Edison upon coming to America but struck out on his own after Edison refused to entertain his ideas on alternating current, ultimately teaming up with Westinghouse.  In a way it’s nice to have this character who straddles both sides of the war at different periods of time, but in the long run the film isn’t about him, and therefore fails to do this other giant of the industry justice.  Tom Holland also appears as Edison’s secretary and voice of reason Samuel Insull; he’s maybe the only likeable character in the movie, and 70% of that is because he’s Tom Holland.

Power couple: Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in “The Current War”

While “The Current War” does eventually reach what appears to be a clear climax—the Chicago World’s Fair—the story lacks direction up until that point, feeling instead like it is merely depicting snapshots of the current war here and there without really connecting them.  There are some high points, like the split-screen sequence juxtaposing the beauty of the electric bulbs illuminating the fair with the horror of that same electric current powering an electric chair as the first prisoner is set to be executing by electrocution.  But otherwise, for a film that’s about inventors, it lacks any real sense of exhilaration or discovery.  Edison wistfully describes the moment he got the first lightbulb to work at the end of the film, but the audience never sees that moment, or any other moment that inspires that sort of awe.

But the technical aspects of the movie are perhaps its biggest flaw.  It’s atrociously edited and shot with a variety of camera tricks from zooms to wide angle lenses that give a sense of distortion and disorientation—which might be intriguing, if there was any reason for the scenes those tricks are used in to provide the audience with an off-kilter mood.  Instead, they are distracting and dizzying.  In short, the majority of the movie just looks flat-out terrible.

For all of the production and distribution woes that “The Current War” has faced, it would be nice to see this film make a triumphant theatrical debut at long last.  But you’d likely be more entertained reading Wikipedia articles on Edison and Westinghouse as opposed to watching this film.  Informative? Yes. Illuminating? Not so much.

Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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