Making movies is never easy, but this week’s film had a much rockier road to completion than most. With production caught in the middle of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, “The Current War” waited over two years before finally seeing the light of day.
Since then, the movie saw reshoots and a brand new edit, and is now in theaters with the subtitle “The Director’s Cut.” So after all that hubbub, is the film the disaster some have made it out to be? No, but the signs of a difficult production are clearly visible.
In the 1880’s, the famous inventor Thomas Edison — played by Benedict Cumberbatch — has done it again, creating a new device that seems to signal that the future has arrived: the lightbulb. But immediately it becomes clear that to sell his invention, he needs to create an infrastructure for the public to use it. Soon, a race emerges between his low voltage direct current, and the high voltage alternating current of George Westinghouse — played by Michael Shannon — to gain the contract required to provide power for the United States.
Historical films are a tricky beast. The script is obligated to follow the facts, but being too close to history can lead to a dull story. “The Current War” is a bit of both, following the real rivalry to power the U.S. in the 1880’s, whilst also attempting to dramatize the lengths to which both parties went in their pursuit to come out on top.
The movie gives about equal time to the opposing men in this chase, Edison vs. Westinghouse, with Nikola Tesla — played by Nicolas Hoult — thrown in. But Edison is the default protagonist in this case, and it’s primarily a story of how he twists his personal principles in his quest for power, both literal and metaphorical.
In the beginning, Edison is portrayed as a family man who sticks to principles of not inventing anything that would bring humans harm. However, his need for financing from big business banker J.P. Morgan — played by Matthew Macfadyen — pushes him to fight dirty, and he resorts to secretly helping invent the electric chair, using Westinghouse’s high voltage AC, to smear his rival.
This conflicts with his personal beliefs, and you would think it could make for an interesting clash in his conscience, but aside from one confrontational scene with his secretary, not much is brought to light. As a piece of historical documentation, the arguments between the effectiveness of the currents is intriguing. However, the movie doesn’t focus as much on the personal details as the technical ones, and typical audience members might find such a lack of character focus to be frustrating.
Brushing aside certain events is a frequent problem in the film. Its editing in general is rather sloppy, including the awkward text introductions for the main characters. But most of the movie’s pace is faster than lightspeed, seemingly in an attempt to cover as much historical ground as possible. This does make it a nice, brisk experience to watch, but anybody wanting the movie to slow down and let the story breathe will be left in the dark.
Headlined by a high quality cast consisting of solid performances, one can’t get beyond a feeling of the actors going through the motions. Cumberbatch in a way is playing the same character he always does, the genius with poor people skills. Recognizable actors like Tom Holland of “Spider-Man” fame, and Katherine Waterston of the “Fantastic Beasts” series pop up, but are given just barely a spark to do, leading you to wonder why they’re there in the first place.
Fun for the historical enthusiasts but lacking in other areas, “The Current War” may have been helped by its two-year gestation period. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to bring it back from coming up short, despite some good performances and a few neat visual quirks. It’s not for everyone, and it may not win any awards, but it tells a story that in some ways shaped the world we live in today. If you like history and don’t mind a fast pace, this is one worth checking out.
- Tells an interesting story.
- Quick pace.
- High quality period detail.
- Problematic editing.
- Emphasizes historical accuracy over personal interaction.
- Script rushes at times.
- Somewhat overshadowed by its behind-the-scenes troubles.