“The Current War”, which was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2017 but only got released in US around two years later due to several reasons including Harvey Weinstein’s involvement in its production, does not have enough power to hold our attention. Although its historical subject and figures have lots of potentials for a dramatic story to be told, the movie is often hampered by its deficient storytelling and thin characterization, and it eventually comes to leave us unsatisfied without much impression.
As reflected by its very title, the movie is mainly about a famous technological competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) during the 1880-90s. During the opening scene set in 1880, Edison demonstrates his latest invention to a bunch of curious investors, and that is none other than an electric light bulb. After his modest but awesome demonstration, Edison moves onto the next step for a far bigger one, and then we see him turning on numerous light bulbs in New York City in front of a huge crowd thanks to enough financial support from his main backer J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), who was one of the wealthiest men in US during that period.
As a fellow inventor who has incidentally earned lots of money thanks to his ingenious invention on train break system, Westinghouse is quite interested in learning a bit more from Edison, and he even invites Edison to a private dinner, but Edison casually ignores Westinghouse as regarding him as another potential competitor. This snub certainly makes Westinghouse angry and humiliated, and he becomes quite determined to beat Edison in the growing electricity market over the American continent.
And they soon find themselves opposing each other not only in business approach but also technical approach. While Edison sticks to Direct Current (DC) as before, Westinghouse goes for Alternating Current (AC) instead, and his company quickly becomes a very serious competitor to Edison’s company due to a number of technical advantages from AC. With AC, one can supply electricity in a wider area on a cheaper price, and this significant advantageous aspect enables Westinghouse’s company to spread its market all over the American continent within a short period.
Of course, Edison is not so pleased about this at all, but he remains adamant in his opinion on AC and DC. Even when a new promising employee named Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) instantly points out the advantage of AC over DC, Edison does not listen at all, and his other employees including his dutiful right-hand guy Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) have no choice but to obey to their boss’ stubborn position.
And then there comes a rather disturbing idea to Edison. For emphasizing that AC is more dangerous than DC, he begins to show animals being electrocuted by AC in front of many people, and that certainly generates some negative publicity on AC and Westinghouse’s company, but then he is approached by a government official who is quite interested in using AC for execution. As a man personally against execution, Edison naturally becomes conflicted, but then he chooses to accept the offer when his company keep getting cornered by Westinghouse’s, and that questionable decision of his is followed by a legal debate on whether electric chair has any ethical problem.
Westinghouse initially chooses to take the high road in front of the negative publicity generated by Edison, but then he also becomes quite more desperate in the end, and the circumstance between him and Edison accordingly becomes uglier than before. When the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is approaching, they certainly become all the more competitive than before as respectively trying to be the one who is going to illuminate the exposition with light bulbs.
As two intense and ambitious heroes opposing each other, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon are well-cast to say the least, and they did a fairly good job of conveying to us their characters’ sheer competitiveness, but the screenplay by Michael Mitnick does not provide much depth to their characters as hurriedly hopping from one key moment to another. As a matter of fact, the movie often feels like an clumsily abridged version of TV miniseries, and its scattershot narrative is further exacerbated by the choppy editing and unnecessary busy camera work throughout the film.
In case of the other main cast members of the film, they are also wasted as much as Shannon and Cumberbatch. While Tom Holland and Nicholas Hoult are stuck with their bland supporting roles, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Stanley Townsend, and Matthew Macfadyen bring some dramatic weight to the story despite being under-utilized on the whole, and Waterston manages to elevate her thankless role a bit during her few small scenes with Shannon.
“The Current War” is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who previously directed “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015). Although it is less annoying and obnoxious than “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, “The Current War” is still a seriously flawed work in many aspects, and it is a shame that it does not generate much electricity despite the considerable potentials glimpsed from its story and main cast members.