Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton
Runtime: 1 hr 47 mins
Rating: PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 17 October 2019
Synopsis: America, the late 19th century. Two brilliant men, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, conduct a fierce rivalry that will light up the country. Edison, famous, iconoclastic and unwaveringly wed to his direct current system of electricity, begins a battle with publicity-shy industrialist Westinghouse, and his system of alternating current. The rivalry begins in his lab at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and spills onto the country’s front pages into a bitter court case. The two struggle via fair means and foul to win the War of the Currents. Hostilities boil and lives are lost as the rivalry plays out on a thrilling, world-changing scale. As the two vie for the right to power the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the arrival of an otherworldly Serb inventor called Nikola Tesla may finally tip the balance…
If you’ve read up a little bit about this project, then you’ll know that this was one of Weinstein’s last work before his entire film career and company collapsed from the sexual allegations. The Current War, with its polished production and high-profile casting premiered to a small (and unimpressed) crowd at Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and received lacklustre reviews.
Two years later, after several change of hands and a re-edit by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film is finally out for a commercial release, but it would seem the spark (if it at all existed) has all but died.
Benedict Cumberbatch is Thomas Edison, and on the cusp of changing the world as everyone knows it with his latest invention - the electric lightbulb. Hot on his heels is the enterprising George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), a dignified businessman who is as determined as he is shrewd. He buys up patents for dynamos and machinery and leapfrogs Edison with his own system, in order to claim first-movers advantage.
The big difference between the two is not only in personality, but also in their systems. Thomas, a territorial inventor ho wants his name on all that he creates, is a harsh boss and absent husband and father. Cumberbatch plays this with contained nerves and a zeal that frays his demeanor as the competition heats up. He leads the campaign with his Direct Current (DC) system.
George on the other hand, is charismatic and likeable, but establishes his business acumen with the doggedness of a bloodhound and the ferocity of a bulldog. Using his reputation as a legendary oil and gas merchant, he challenges Thomas with his Alternating Current (AC) build.
As the two fight to win bids from cities who adopt their systems, Nikola Tesla enters the picture and forms a triangular relationship that merges at one point or another. Arguably the most interesting of the three, Nicholas Hoult plays the suffering genius who gets crushed under the other two industry heavyweights.
The Current War gains a lot of gravity from the stellar cast. Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen and Stanley Townsend all play significant roles in the script, from spirited wives to loyal assistants, but the script never gives them credence to their roles, and they become moral compasses (like the ‘ol angel and devil routine) to guide our visionary trio to their goals.
Because the film has gone through so much filters, it’s hard to define who’s fault it might be, but the end product clearly fails to be identifiable as a distinctive piece of work.
It feels frenetically put together, and edited to keep us breathless through the film - almost like you would, distracting a baby with a shiny, fast-moving toy. So the end result is almost an exceptional long film trailer, delivered with spinning camera work and an overworked soundtrack.
No doubt there’s an attempt at some sort of an emotional appeal at parts (spoiler alert: someone’s wife dies midway) but these feel hurried along like inconvenient plot devices and thus end up empty on all fronts.
There’s plenty of visual representation of the competition between Thomas and George, but the scale of the investment and risk is reduced mainly to the red and yellow lightbulbs as they take over states. It’s an odd product - like an instagramable prop used ad nauseum, and soon loses all meaning.
The Current War may have struck as an exciting premise between innovative giants, but this docu-fiction project is nowhere nearly as great. And even if the main quarrel is between the two AC and DC systems, the film barely touches on any technical aspect here, which sadly places the audience in limbo on either’s goodness. After all of that, I STILL have no idea what’s the difference between AC and DC. Someone help me out here please.
(Electrifying this is not. The pacing is consciously excitable to the point of being annoying, and all sense of story is lost in a blur of dramatic camera work and desperate editing)
Review by Morgan Awyong