The Current War: Director’s Cut is the true story of the legendary battle to electrify America. It pit the brilliant, cutthroat inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) against the gentleman industrialist, George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). Vital to both men were the contributions of the power grid’s true father, the genius futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). The heated competition between the fathers of modernity is unfortunately told with a shotgun pace. A fantastic ensemble barrels through the plot like a steam engine of old. The result is a CliffsNotes/Wikipedia portrayal of seminal historical events.
The Current War: Director’s Cut opens in the early 1880s with Thomas Edison basking in the success of his thirteen hour incandescent light bulb. The Wizard of Menlo Park, New Jersey was a superstar; widely considered to be the greatest mind in the world. Brash, arrogant, and filled with dreams of grandeur, Edison lobbied banker J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) to fund his goal of electrifying Wall Street. Edison’s Direct Current (DC) system would transform society by bringing light to darkness. Nothing or no one would stop him. Edison’s doting wife (Tuppence Middleton) and steadfast assistant (Tom Holland) were enamored by his brilliance. They facilitated his obnoxious behavior.
George Westinghouse held a deep admiration for Edison, but was continually snubbed by him. Westinghouse believed that an Alternating Current (AC) power grid was cheaper, more efficient, and viable over longer distances. When the immigrant scientist Nikola Tesla came to work for Edison, he also expressed this view. Edison, confident of his superior intellect, refused to listen. He plowed ahead with his DC system, ignoring urgent personal matters at home. Edison became enraged when cities started choosing Westinghouse’s AC grid. He launched a clandestine, vicious campaign to discredit Westinghouse; claiming that AC power was inherently dangerous. The two men cranked up their attacks against each other until a clear victory presented itself. Chicago’s World Fair offered a bid to electrify their 1893 exposition. The winner would show thirty million visitors the dawn of a new age.
Before delving into the film, it’s worthwhile to discuss the long road to release. The Current War was shot in late 2016 and premiered to a poor reception at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Original distributors, The Weinstein Company, was dissolved in the wake of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The Current War was eventually sold to 101 Studios for US distribution. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), was allowed re-shoots and re-edited the film. Hence, we have the 2019 updated version with Director’s Cut in the title.
The Current War: Director’s Cut skips through an intricate plot with quick edits and montages. I felt like I was watching a music video of Edison vs. Westinghouse. The film never allows the actors to inhabit the characters or add any depth to the dialogue. Gomez-Rejon pours a gallon of narrative into a vessel the size of a cup. The Current War: Director’s Cut is devoid of nuance, churning nonstop like the electric dynamos the characters were struggling to perfect. There’s also an imbalance between the leads. Michael Shannon has much less screen time, and spends the entire film in reaction mode. Nicholas Hoult’s Tesla is introduced, and then vanishes until the third act. He pops up like a prairie dog for the finale. This is a great disservice to a fundamentally important character. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cut ten minutes for the final edit. I’m curious if those scenes added more dramatic heft, because this version desperately needed it.
The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, known for his work with South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, is the film’s highlight. Thomas Edison, who co-invented the motion picture camera, might have bristled at the substance of his character; but would have probably appreciated the look of the film. The Current War: Director’s Cut is history light, pun intended. Edison, Westinghouse, and definitely Tesla deserved a deeper, more thoughtful story. The Current War: Director’s Cut is a production of Bazelevs Company and Thunder Road Pictures with distribution by 101 Studios.
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