As you may know, The Current War was scheduled to be released by The Weinstein Company in the fall of 2017 until, well, you know. The film spent time as a line on a balance sheet while distributors picked over the assets of Weinstein’s bankrupt firm until this week, when it comes to us under the official title of The Current War: The Director’s Cut. If anything, the delay has probably helped its box-office prospects, as Tom Holland (whose role in the movie is very much a supporting one) has since become a star in the Marvel universe. As for the film itself, it’s no great shakes, but it is more compelling than you’d probably expect from a movie about warring 19th-century business interests.
Most of the film takes place in the early 1890s in the run-up to the Chicago World’s Fair, which will showcase a major American city entirely powered by electricity. Who will supply the power? Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) seems to have the inside track, being already renowned for inventing a practical incandescent light bulb. He’s supposed to meet with George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), the train brake inventor who’s looking to move into the electricity business, but the great man feels tired and leaves Westinghouse and his wife (Katherine Waterston) standing at a freezing railway station. This gives Westinghouse a grudge, but he has something even better: a design flaw in Edison’s direct current method of transmitting electricity. Westinghouse uses alternating current as a cheaper, more efficient way, and a jealous Edison becomes obsessed with discrediting AC as a lethal hazard, stooping so low as to go against his own humanitarian principles and secretly advise the state of New York in how to use alternating current in their new electric chair.
The film is called the “director’s cut” because before Weinstein’s collapse, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who did Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) clashed with the mogul over the final edit. Reportedly, what we’re seeing is eight minutes shorter than Weinstein wanted but includes more scenes. Gomez-Rejon, no fool, includes a meaty scene with Holland — as Edison’s assistant — standing up to his boss over the breach in his publicly stated beliefs. It’s a nice yarn, with the director hitting quick in the early scenes to prevent this from becoming stodgy. Edison’s invention of the phonograph is cleverly presented here as an afterthought marketed to raise some cash to help its inventor defeat Westinghouse, while his disgruntled former employee Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) blindsides both competitors by theorizing giant hydroelectric motors hooked up to Niagara Falls.
It’s all engaging without really telling us anything about corporate leadership or the advances of technology or much of relevance for today’s audience. Why should we invest too much in the story of two rich guys battling over who gets to become richer, especially when we know that the loser of this battle will go on to invent the motion picture camera and be just fine? Having Edison watch his wife (Tuppence Middleton) lose her brain function and die doesn’t deepen our understanding of his character. The involvement of oil tycoon J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) in the story doesn’t add much, and even Tesla comes off as an impractical dreamer instead of the man many considered to be Edison’s only rival.
The movie is gorgeously photographed by the gifted Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (who did The Handmaiden and, uh, Zombieland: Double Tap), who gives the electric light here a numinous glow that makes it seem as unreal to us as it must have been to the 19th-century Americans who first saw it. The other reason to see this is the acting, particularly in the climactic scene when the two adversaries finally find themselves standing next to each other at the World’s Fair and Westinghouse asks about Edison’s invention of his light bulb. Cumberbatch is spellbinding as he unspools the tale of how a team of engineers watched a filament burn for 13 hours after thousands of failures, but it’s Shannon who owns the scene as he shows the mogul moved by the story of a scientific miracle. The actor is as understated as a 6’4” man wearing mutton chop sideburns can be, and he paints a beautiful portrait of a loud, gruff, basically decent man who finds his moment in a spotlight that he supplied the power for. If nothing else, The Current War will make you go home and make you look at your LED bulb differently.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Written by Kevin Mitnick. Rated PG-13.