The Current War’s path from the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 to wide release was short circuited after Harvey Weinstein’s legal problem, stemming from multiple allegations of sexual assault, brought down his company. The film, which tells the story of the technology battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, was eventually picked up from Weinstein for distribution by 101 Studios. The Director’s Cut, after retooling by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, opens nationwide on October 25.
The historical drama pits Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) against Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), two titans jockeying for the prize of bringing electricity to the country. Edison promotes direct current (DC), saying that Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC) is dangerous. The race heats up with the contest of who will win the opportunity to light up the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
In his time, Edison was a rock star, with journalists covering his every move and fans asking him for autographs. He was also a family man, enjoying a close relationship with his wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton), and his children. Cumberbatch is in his element in these scenes, basking in the attention, whether from his family or his fans. His personal life suffers, however, after Mary dies from what seems to be a brain tumor. (Middleton exits early in the film, leaving Katherine Waterston, who plays Marguerite Westinghouse, as the only female with a featured role.) Edison’s darker side is displayed when he attempts to sabotage Westinghouse’s AC system by electrocuting a horse. (A side plot, concerning the development of the electric chair, although historically accurate, is an unnecessary diversion.)
While the Edison vs. Westinghouse face-off dominates the story, there are many sidebars. Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) works first for Edison and then for Westinghouse. Tesla is portrayed as a dreamer whose ideas are ahead of their time but not ones that will make money. Tom Holland plays Samuel Insull, Edison’s loyal secretary, but the character is never fully fleshed out. Also misused is Matthew Macfadyen, as J.P. Morgan, whose cherry red nose is a huge distraction.
The film bogs down when the script tackles the challenge of explaining the technical aspects of the two systems. While some details are certainly necessary, some editing could have made the points more succinctly. Fortunately, the film is visually stunning, with cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung. The screen is frequently lit up in amazing displays of lighting – fitting for a film about electricity.
Photo credit: Dean Rogers