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Review: The Current War (2020)

Is the history of electricity interesting?

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Is the history of electricity interesting? I don’t mean the very first lightbulb or current of electricity, but I mean a battle to who took electric power to the masses first. Is that interesting? Writer Michael Mitnick and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon clearly think so with The Current War.

Focusing on the race between inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) from 1880 to 1893, the film isn’t so much about electricity as it is about business. Edison is the idealistic and harsh man dedicated to science and Westinghouse is the capitalist looking to expand his empire and bring society into a new time. Things come to a head with the two men’s race to light up the Chicago’s World Fair with their respective direct current and alternating current. There are themes of integrity, the conflict between two men at this time of great change, as well as some narrative on how branding and marketing for each individual’s electricity system ultimately changed how electricity got to the USA.

You can tell something is strange from the outset. Edison’s assistant Samuel Insull is played by a much younger Tom Holland, who looks nothing like he does now, and the film feels in a similar vein to 2014 The Imitation Game (a film where Cumberbatch is absolutely excellent – unlike here). And when you look into the film’s history, it begins to make sense. It’s being released more than two years after the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s behind the scenes drama and late release is a direct result of the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. After several changes and delays, this is what we get

Unfortunately, it feels like a movie that would have done well a couple of years back, with its interesting conflict set during a historical and industrial change in the world. Instead The Current War is a dud that never really reaches the levels simmering underneath. There are some moments that really soar, but they are few and far between. There’s fascinating source material and it really told a story that a lot of people don’t know and if anything, you get a history lesson on how electricity got to the masses.

But there are also strange inclusions that warrant a furrowed brow, especially the scenes featuring Nikola Tesla (played by an underused Nicholas Hoult), who comes across as the outsider with crazed ideas of the potential of electricity. He’s not as business savvy as the others, and he’s too much a dreamer for the at-war businessmen around him. The story doesn’t go much further into his contributions or his successes, making it feel like an unqualified addition<. The film also jumps years ahead, and loses track of its central plot, feeling more like a vision representation of a Wikipedia page on the conflict, than one brought to life on screen.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl fame, is trying to do a lot. The speedy pace at which it moves, intended to create anxiety and a sense of urgency, results in the film skimming over character development and backstories that would have made us relate to the characters feelings and desires. There are elements of Tom Hooper’sstyle, with circular pans, close ups, fisheye shots and obscure camera angles throughout. And it’s less Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and more Hooper’s The King’s Speech, as it juggles the period piece with modernity, as well as holistic cohesion and intention.

On the acting side, Cumberbatch phones it in, never quite settling on an American accent and struggling to differentiate this role from the tortured other he’s played during his career. See: The Imitation Game. And whilst the film paints Edison as unlikeable and a real awful person, Cumberbatch struggles to express this through his acting. Holland is wasted here as his secretary, and we never really understand why they work together, particularly as Edison is so horrible. Hoult is also underutilised and Tesla falls flats as a compelling character, adding any value to the story. Shannon ends up providing the best performance of the film, bringing Westinghouse, a person many people aren’t familiar with, to life. He is a subtle villain, but one that is realistic and grounded in reality. He’s also just the quintessential American man trying to forge an empire when it was easy to do one. He’s effective and shines during all his scenes on camera.

Gomez-Rejon has a lot to manage here and unfortunately it isn’t perfect. But what he can be commended on is exploring the conflict between Edison and Westinghouse. It isn’t personal or professional. It’s about quality and quantity. And both believe their system is the most effective. It’s not about innovation but more about America’s obsession with making innovation about history-making business. Edison was about personal glory and his lightbulb was a technological innovation like no other. But Westinghouse was the man who seeks to take that to every person – democratising innovation for all. The film can’t decide if we should celebrate them or condemn them, so it settles simply for remembering them. It makes you reconsider the electricity we use every day and brings to the fore the story of how it got there. And that’s pretty cool.

The Best

Shannon is really good as Westinghouse. I learnt a lot more about the expansion of electricity across America than I have ever known before.

The Rest

Gomez-Rejon struggles to recontextualise history and the film feels hollow. We want to know more than what the history books tell us. There’s quality there, it might just take a few cuts to get it out.

Originally published on Back Row, 6 March, 2020.

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