Synopsis – The dramatic story of the cutthroat race between electricity titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to determine whose electrical system would power the modern world.
My Take – It is quite surprising to know that despite being one of the most beloved American cultural figures of all time, Thomas Edison, hasn’t had a biopic hasn’t. Perhaps studio executives felt audience just are not interested in knowing about a man who played a huge role in bringing electricity to the world, and is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of the motion picture.
Nevertheless, the presence of star-studded cast made sure that this drama from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, which takes a look at the pioneers of electricity, and the rivalry between them, made it to everyone’s watch list about well, two years ago.
Originally completed production back in March 2017, just in time to compete at TIFF in September 2017, the film was considered to be a major contender for the 2018 Academy Awards, with a prime release date in December. With heavyweight producers like Martin Scorsese, Timur Bekmambetov, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein backing it, with Harvey overseeing the assemblage of the final cut.
While the film ended up being a critical disaster at TIFF, the load of sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, made sure the film was also dropped from its original release too, indefinitely. That is until Lantern Entertainment acquired The Weinstein Company‘s assets in late 2018 and brokered a deal with 13 Films to co-distribute the film internationally in July 2019.
Unfortunately for the film, between all the controversies and critically lashing, the film ended up quickly disappearing following its release everywhere, even though, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon confirmed he had re-edited the film, added five additional scenes and trimmed the overall run time by 10 minutes.
In my opinion, the film is certainly not as bad as a lot of critics, as most of them had reviewed the TIFF cut, have made it out to be. It is competently acted, reasonably entertaining, and surprisingly suspenseful and enthralling considering it is about a competition between industrial-era engineers.
While there is no denying that Gomez-Rejon over-directs the whole thing, the personal drama, stunning cinematography and all-around entertainment made the film well-rounded and widely appealing even though the at-times patchy plotting acts as a hindrance during its 107 minutes run time.
Set in 1880, the story follows Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), an inventor-entrepreneur-celebrity who had already stunned America with his light bulb, however, his design to use Direct Current, required the building of generators every mile or so, hence with the help of his assistant Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), went on working on working to find a way to efficiently conduct electricity and light up the entire country.
Trusting his long-suffering benefactor, the banker JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), to always fulfill his ever need of funds, Edison is ready to do anything to achieve success, except to participate in anything that involves with the dealing of munitions or death.
His worst fears comes in the form of George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), the millionaire inventor of the railway air brake, who until then had considered Natural gas as the future, comes up with a cheaper and more efficient solution, literally the AC to Edison’s DC.
While Edison is convinced that Westinghouse’s electricity is far more dangerous and potentially lethal, the tension between Edison and Westinghouse ratchets up a notch when they find themselves in competition to light the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Determined to win at all cost, Edison abandons his scruples in an attempt to discredit his rival and they become embroiled in a bitter court case.
Meanwhile, a brilliant Serb inventor, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), arrives on the scene but struggles to reap the necessary funds to continue his pioneering work and live the lavish life he aspires to.
With an interesting script and agreeable cast, this one is a fascinating, beautifully designed film, which brings to life arguably the most inventive decade in history, while reflecting on the varying motivations – ego, money, philanthropy, visionary instinct – that drive progress. The film frames itself as a fight for the future, with Edison and Westinghouse vying for not just business, but a chance to change the world.
The choice between the pair is superficially technological, either Edison’s direct current or Westinghouse’s alternating, but it quickly becomes a battle of ideologies too. Though the pair are fighting for business, and to light up the whole of America, it molds into a personal fight too.
What stood out to me about the script was how it took its subject matter and the principal people involved and told their story in a way that was informed but not too complicated. I think that was a good choice because it means that those who are experts on the subject matter of this film can go and see it and be satisfied with its depiction; but it’s also prepared to cater to the needs of those who don’t know too much about the scientific aspects of the film.
I would call this an impressive script that addresses its subject matter in a very crowd-pleasing way. As well as documenting their fierce rivalry, the film also touches on the personal lives of Edison and Westinghouse, which helps to soften the tone of the film.
Sadly, there just isn’t enough time to explore these characters with the depth truly needed.
The film also makes clever use of its electrical theme, using light bulbs in a number of symbolic ways, creating both stunning visuals and helping to drive the plot forward. Also here, the compositions by Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran create congruence and partially make up for the somewhat confusing narrative. By emphasizing the most vital parts of the story, the score helps the viewer follow the frequent twists and turns.
The beautiful camerawork, however, is what truly stands out. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, also noted for his work on It (2017), has done a marvelous job with the variety of shots and styles. Long, sweeping segments of grandiose scenery and special effects create awe and highlight magnificent innovations; clever transitions draw the viewers’ eyes fluidly through scene changes.
However, the film’s biggest issue, is how it excitedly leaps across time and space with little pause of thought and is often disproportionately pulled into Edison’s narrative. Equally, it’s dealing with a long list of heady themes but doesn’t quite know how to unpack them. The closest it comes to doing so is in the aftermath of the undeniably exhilarating finale, where the two men are given a final chance to face-off.
The handling of the characters is also problematic. The film has a habit of downplaying the supporting characters. Neither Edison’s wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) nor Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) are developed beyond “supportive wife”, whilst Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull gets just one decent scene.
The worst example of this is, however, is Nikola Tesla, who is very much an afterthought, so under-developed that one wonders if it would have been better to leave him out altogether.
However, what kept me interested was the performance of its all rounded cast. Benedict Cumberbatch is really quite excellent, there are places where the script doesn’t paint Edison quite vividly enough, but Cumberbatch is more than able to make up for these shortcomings.
Michael Shannon is more interestingly cast against type as Westinghouse, a man as determinedly decent and dull as Edison is charismatically self-serving. In supporting role, both Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston giving vibrant performances.
While, Nicholas Hoult brings a playful eccentricity to a film which would otherwise be solidly down-the-line, but he doesn’t have a great deal to play with. Tom Holland was fine, his character was fairly likeable and had a very believable dynamic with Cumberbatch. Matthew Macfadyen managed to stand out. On the whole, ‘The Current War’ is an illuminating film which despite its set of flaws is worth a watch for its great cast and fascinating premise.
Directed – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 107 minutes