This weekend Alfonso Gomez-Rejon release his “director’s cut” of his film, The Current War. What’s that you say? You never heard of the first version of the film? That might be because it was never released in the United States.
The story goes like this: In 2017, The Current War was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival even though the film had not been finished. The film was produced by The Weinstein Company and Harvey Weinstein basically chopped it up thinking that critics would judge the film as a work-in-progress. They didn’t. Critics complained that it was dull and slow-moving. It received a weak 32% “rotten” score from Rotten Tomatoes.
However, since then, Gomez-Rejon re-edited the film putting scenes back in that Weinstein threw out and taking out others the Weinstein kept in. The end product features five new scenes, a lot more Tesla and the running time that is now actually ten minutes shorter. Though I haven’t seen the original film to compare it to, I found this second version to be quite full-filling. I even learned a few things too.
If you are like me, you thought that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and then left it to others to produce and market them. Not true at all. While Edison was quite the celebrity as an inventor, it turns out that he was in a battle with two others to light up the world: George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla. If you’re not like me, you probably paid more attention in school.
In The Current War, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison. He is on the verge of bringing electricity to Manhattan with his DC (direct current) technology. Meanwhile, Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) both believe in the “power” of AC (alternating current) which would be easier and cheaper to build and would connect more homes to electricity than Edison’s way. While Westinghouse wanted to create a partnership with Edison, Edison’s ego got in the way.
The Current War is about this time known in history books as the “Battle of Currents” (which might have made for a better title). It becomes a race to see who can win over the masses and these guys stop at nothing to do so. One gentleman lies about the safety of the other’s form of electricity. The other gentleman breaks into the other’s personal office to expose secrets. And Tesla? He never seems to get the recognition he deserves and gets pushed to the side. This battle comes to a head when Edison and Westinghouse compete to see who will win the task of illuminating the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
I went into this film wanting to root for Edison, but that quickly changed as he seems more worried about staying relevant putting his name and face on everything that he creates while Westinghouse would rather fade into the background.
While some people will complain that this movie is still long and dull, it kept my attention the whole time, although there are a lot of characters and inventions to keep track of. It is beautifully shot, moves at a pleasant pace and though set in the late 1800’s, the characters and the dialogue they speak is actually relatable. In our contemporary world with cell phones and virtual assistants, it’s fascinating to go back in time to fully understand just how amazing the inventions involving electricity really was.
All three leads do an incredible job with their parts making each one distinctive. Once again, Cumberbatch is just as quirky and off-putting as is every other character he has ever played and yet allows for some humanity to be shone when dealing with his wife and children. In contrast, Hoult’s Tesla never seems to understand the need to show proof that something will work. Justing saying that you’ve worked it through in your mind over and over again isn’t enough. Shannon’s Westinghouse never seems to get his feathers ruffled and always appears as if he is about ready to say “Checkmate!” and win the game.
The Current War also stars Tom Holland as Edison’s secretary Samuel Insull, Tuppence Middleton as Mary Stilwell Edison, Matthew Macfadyen as J.P. Morgan and Katherine Waterston as Marguerite Westinghouse.
While this movie isn’t for everybody, at least it has a story to tell, it is told well and there isn’t anything objectionable about it. You too just might learn something.
Main photo: 101 Studios
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.