'The Current War: Director's Cut' Review
October 31, 2019
In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were the two titans of American innovation. With the country modernizing at a rapid pace, both of them figured that there needed to be a better way to power society than just candles and gas.
After some years of development, they both discovered different ways to transmit electric current. Edison stood behind his Direct Current (DC) and Westinghouse championed his Alternating Current (AC). They were similar designs, each with their unique benefits and costs.
But the country wasn’t big enough for both of them and only one method could prevail. Out of this situation sprang a fierce competition between the two men, a rivalry that was labeled as “the war of the currents”. This war lasted years as they battled endlessly to see whose technology would be the one to forever power and illuminate America.
After having a tumultuous time getting to theaters (that’s a whole other story to look up), The Current War finally arrives two years after intended. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film moves like electricity, zipping from scene to scene. The use of sharp camera work and montages oozes kinetic energy that keeps everything moving at a frantic pace, never ceasing to slow down or end. You’re gripped within the race and linked to the main characters as they tirelessly persist to be the one on top.
If you’re not a natural history lover, this technique will keep you endlessly entertained without boring you with historical details. If you are a fan of history, this technique will still entertain you but leave you disappointed as moving the film at the speed of light (or current for that matter) doesn’t allow for deeper learning about the events or people attached to them. Anything that is learned is only surface level as there just isn’t enough time to develop any factual depth.
It also doesn’t help that these shallow details become increasingly hard to keep straight, especially as the years go by in minutes and characters are split up into several intertwining storylines. While a miniseries would be the better way to tell this story, The Current War is an exciting way to convey history on the screen.
Just like Gomez-Rejon’s use of rapid pacing, writer Michael Mitnick’s screenplay is expeditious and Sorkin-like. The rivalry between our two main giants is fierce as they snap dialogue to beat each other in the labs and the presses.
And just like the outcome of the directing, the writing here is entertaining but very hard to follow. Mitnick tries to do too much in too little time as he crams the script to the brim with historical facts. As more information is heaped on, it becomes information overload, and gets increasingly impossible to keep things straight. By the end, you’ll feel like you’ve read a Wikipedia page and will only be able to remember fragments here and there
Also, Nikola Tesla shows up in the story and participates in the race. While Tesla does deserve to stand with Edison and Westinghouse in the history books, he doesn’t belong in this already overly-stuffed movie.
Starring as the brash Thomas Edison is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose American accent isn’t as convincing as one would think. Like most of Cumberbatch’s performances, you can see the genius of the character within his speech and mannerisms. Thankfully, the genius he plays here isn’t as cold as Sherlock Holmes or Alan Turing. There’s some warmth under Edison’s surface that you can sense through Cumberbatch’s performance.
Michael Shannon plays the opposite of Cumberbatch as he is calmer and calculated in his performance of George Westinghouse. He’s the more businessman-like of the two as he carries himself more professionally. Nicholas Hoult plays Nikola Tesla. Just like Cumbertach, Hoult’s Eastern European accent isn’t on point, but it’s fine enough to pass. Hoult does well at making you see the frustration within Tesla as his brilliant ideas are never allowed to flourish.
Lastly, Tom Holland does supporting work as Edison’s secretary. As it was filmed before his star power ballooned from Spider-Man, Holland’s role is minor and doesn’t give him much to work with.
The Current War is the most entertaining and needlessly confusing movie of the year. All the talent involved makes a great effort, but their good intentions just come up short of making a great movie. But it’s still quite good and deserves to be seen, even if you’d be hard-pressed to absorb and remember most of what it’s trying to teach you.