The Current War is a period piece that does not really move like a period piece. Set mostly in the 1880s, this is the fast moving account of the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for control of the electricity market in the United States. It is paced like a thriller and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult and Tom Holland. Even with all that, it never rises above mildly intriguing. The topic is only occasionally compelling and none of these real life figures ever become more than the idea of them. It does not feel completely honest nor does it make clear why this story needed to be put on film. It is well-made and it is sometimes entertaining to watch these actors bounce off of each other. Unfortunately, while the production is not dry, the screenplay certainly is.
Cumberbatch is Edison, compelled both to invent and to make sure he gets the credit. He does not care if people get electricity, only that he is the one to bring it to them. Shannon is Westinghouse, a businessman who believes his system is better. He is fully prepared to partner with the arrogant Edison. Instead, Edison attacks him, first in court, then in the press. Thus begins a full-on fight for control of the country, which is never as engaging as it should be.
The Current War (97 minutes without the end credits) features an impressive collection of acting talent. Sadly, they were not given powerful enough material to take advantage of their skills. Cumberbatch gets to play his usual pain-in-the-butt genius, yet there is little depth to him. He is focused on his work to the point of mania, but he lacks humanity. Shannon gets some depth as the sympathetic Westinghouse. He is set up as the foil for Edison. He is slightly more interesting, even if his arc is smaller. Nicholas Hoult is Nikola Tesla, an idiosyncratic inventor who is convinced he can do each of their systems better than they can. He is the wildcard of the group. His matter of fact confidence is entertaining, though the character is primarily a side note. Tom Holland is pushed farther to the side as Samuel Insull, Edison’s personal secretary. He gets to look worried while giving advice and that is about it. All four actors contribute something, though they are capable of so much more.
In the end, the final product is less notable than the movie’s history. It was originally completed a couple of years ago and premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, to generally negative reviews. It was set to be released in November of 2017; I remember seeing trailers for it. However, its distributer was The Weinstein Company. After the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein came out, it was shelved. Eventually, it was sold to 101 Studios who allowed director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to reedit it into what is being promoted as The Current War – The Director’s Cut.
It was a lot of fuss for something that is thoroughly decent as it unfolds, before quickly fading from memory. I enjoyed aspects of it, such as the performances and the pacing, which constantly keeps things moving. Between the acting, the direction and the subject matter, there is so much potential that it is amazing the movie is just kind of okay. Despite being far from the disaster its two year break from completion to release would predict, it is not nearly as good as its talent level could have produced. It is probably mainly for Edison obsessives or big fans of the stars. Nonetheless, if you happen to see it, it does have its moments.
3 out of 5
Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison
Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse
Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla
Tom Holland as Samuel Insull
Matthew Macfadyen as J.P. Morgan
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Michael Mitnick