The Battle for Control of the World’s Power Grid
PG-13 | 1h 47min | Drama, Biography, History | 25 October 2019 (USA)
In most cases, when a feature film release is delayed for more than two years, it’s for one of three reasons. It’s either a stinker that no one wants and the studio wishes to get it off the books, it was made by a studio that ran out of money and can’t distribute it, or it was only recently completed long after the initial wrap. Luckily, none of those are why “The Current War: Director’s Cut” took so long to see the light of day.
The film was slated to be a Christmas 2017 release from The Weinstein Company and was shelved until 2019 due to co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s legal issues and the subsequent dissolving of the studio. Prior to release, it was tossed around like a hot potato until finally landing in the lap of upstart 101 Studios.
Somewhat misleading, the 2019 film is not really a “director’s cut” as it is the only known incarnation to see wide release. The version shown at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival was edited by Weinstein, and the word from those who’ve seen both: The director’s cut is a far better take.
“Current” isn’t a reference to time but rather electricity, and specifically in its infancy stages as a budding energy source in the United States. The “war” part is wholly accurate as it profiles two of America’s most prominent and iconic engineers and inventors. It also involves another who only recently received his proper historical due, as well as a blunt and blustery business magnate who used his riches like so many sticks and carrots.
Westinghouse Versus Edison
The film opens in 1880, long after the professional rivalry between George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) began. The pair had not so radically different ideas on how to power the nation and eventually the world. Edison was a champion of DC (direct current), a method that was “safer” but had distance limitations and came at a higher cost. Westinghouse believed in AC (alternate current), which had a much longer reach and was less expensive but was also perceived as being more “dangerous,” a theory that Edison attempted to exploit at every turn.
Swift out of the gate and never allowing things to lag, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon employs a quasi “docudrama” approach to the first act, which is actually great because he identifies a multitude of major and secondary characters by name and association. This effective but fleeting touch makes it so much easier for audiences to get acclimated and only lasts as long as needed.
The arguable “rock star” of his day, Edison is portrayed here as a workaholic visionary and not exactly the perfect family man. His full-time dedication to creativity took a toll, and to Gomez-Rejon’s and scribe Michael Mitnick’s credit, their warts-and-all rendering of Edison is refreshing. He was a Type-A fellow with a gargantuan ego whose razor-sharp wit could often turn cruel.
Perfectly cast as Westinghouse, Shannon brings his trademark laconic delivery and nonverbal skills to the proceedings to superb effect. Not nearly as animated or outwardly verbal as Edison, Westinghouse was also a better chess player and absorbed setbacks with measured detachment. He realized, far more so than Edison, that the two men were involved in a mini-marathon of sorts and, in a brilliantly worded line, would rather “take a honest hard hit than an easier, less damaging facsimile.”
Delivering brilliant supporting turns without the often showy “look at me” straining are Nicholas Hoult as the Serbian-born Nikola Tesla and a barely recognizable Matthew Macfadyen as J.P. Morgan. Looked down upon solely because he was an “immigrant” with forward-thinking fashion sense and an accent, the relatively poor Tesla partnered with both Edison and Westinghouse at various times.
A freelancer of the highest order, Morgan cared little about science or technology and often took long-term gambles when it came to financing the feuding brilliant minds of the day. He seemed practically impenetrable to any kind of emotional manipulation, especially when it came to his bottom line.
Anyone interested in the history of the embryonic phase of the Industrial Revolution needs to see this movie. Clocking in at a blisteringly efficient 107 minutes, it has no fat or excess. Its only sin could be a repeated scene involving a Civil War-era Westinghouse subplot that delivers no payoff.
If we wish to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been. “The Current War” will remind us of our mostly great past and the power of original thought, ingenuity, drive, sweat equity, and the power of persuasion.
‘The Current War: Director’s Cut’
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Macfadyen
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Oct. 25, 2019
Rating: 4 out of 5