Toward the end of The Current War, a dogged attempt to illuminate the AC/DC battle, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison warns his son not to talk to the bird at his bedroom window about electricity: “That’ll put him to sleep for sure.” Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon seems all too aware of that risk, loading up on enough virtuoso camerawork, manic editing, zippy effects, cool graphics, split-screen and elaborate CG fakery to fuel a dozen superhero movies. There’s even a trippy techno score that makes you wonder if America’s forefathers of electrical power were into trance pop.
The signal sent loud and clear is that the filmmakers were averse to the idea of making a fusty period drama. The movie never stops reminding us that its competing protagonists were as much visionaries of the future as men of their time. Fair enough. But no amount of Dutch angles, whip pans, careening zooms or vertiginous crane shots can succeed here in making the science or the personalities behind it into compelling screen drama. For all its aggressive energy, The Current War is an uninvolving bore, making it unlikely to measure up as the kind of Oscar-baity prestige entry The Weinstein Co. obviously had in mind.
While any historical film about an inventor would seem to demand coverage of the moment when the light bulb popped, Michael Mitnick’s screenplay literally skips over that part. It begins after Edison has tested thousands of designs before nailing the right elements to capture electric light in a commercially marketable glass orb. The 1880 opening has a trainload of New York money men arriving in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and traipsing through mud to witness cigar-puffing egomaniac Edison flick the switch on a dazzling demonstration of his product. He lights up the field in perfect concentric circles, no less, providing an early and accurate indicator that this movie has been art-directed to death.
While Edison secures the financial backing of J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen, stuck behind a bulbous red nose) to light up five Manhattan blocks, Pittsburgh-based businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) sees the limitations in Edison’s direct-current technology. Switching from gas and co-opting some of Edison’s discoveries, Westinghouse begins working successfully with alternating current, allowing him to get ahead in the game by putting electric lighting in a string of American cities. A modest man who eschews personal publicity, Westinghouse invites Edison to dine at his home but is rudely snubbed by the famed inventor.
That would appear to put the wheels in place for a rivalrous battle between household names who are polar opposites, allowing for two very different meditations on the nature of success.
Entirely aware of the power of his celebrity, Edison is intoxicated by his own genius, a strict solo player who takes his employees’ dedication for granted and refuses to share credit. He loves his children and his wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) but is too consumed by work to provide the attention they crave. Westinghouse, by contrast, is devoted to his supportive spouse Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), whose drive and ambition might even exceed his own. He treats his workers with gratitude and respect (Westinghouse was an early champion of the five-day week), and values his collaboration and friendship with electrical engineer Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend).
There’s also a third key figure, Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who initially goes to work for Edison but quits when it becomes clear that his contributions are undervalued. Tesla takes his ideas for an alternating current motor to Westinghouse, who is more receptive.
Mitnick’s screenplay has no shortage of incident. Both Edison and Westinghouse suffer great personal losses that impact their progress in different ways. Both of them bid on the lucrative contract to light the Chicago World’s Fair. And both men are drawn into the efforts of New York State to harness electricity for a more “humane” method of capital punishment. There are smear campaigns, with Edison playing up the potential for fatal accidents in AC power, while Westinghouse releases secret correspondence showing that the hypocritical Edison served as a technical adviser on the development of the electric chair.
They may be historically accurate, but the grand pronouncements made by Edison, stating his refusal to help design military weapons (“The only device I shall never build is that which takes a human life”) have an air of pandering to contemporary liberal sensibilities.
The bigger problem though is that there’s just no cinematic life in this story and too little dimension in its characters. Cumberbatch has played more complex and sympathetic versions of this role before, notably in The Imitation Game. His Edison is an abrasive take on a stock figure — the brilliant, uncompromising, restless innovator. The loss he suffers barely registers since our investment in him is minimal, and attempts to humanize him like his Morse code exchanges with his son and wife, shown in onscreen text, are merely cutesy. Shannon gives a suitably understated performance in the less showy role, making Westinghouse a quiet man of substance and determination. He’s by no means a saint, but by far the more appealing character.
Hoult doesn’t get much to play beyond the accent and the old world European pride in Tesla, and none of the other characters makes much of an impression, including Edison’s loyal British personal secretary, played by Tom Holland.
It doesn’t help the drama that Edison and Westinghouse meet face to face only briefly and unremarkably, or that the endless talk of electrical systems is so unexciting. And rather than disguise the script’s weaknesses, the nonstop barrage of distracting technical tricks puts them in glaring relief.
Mitnick originally conceived the story as a stage musical that never got beyond a developmental production. That form perhaps would have been a more appropriate match for all the calisthenics, weird tilts and fish-eye views of Chung-Hoon Chung’s camera, the assaultive colors of Jan Roelfs‘ fussy production design, the frenetic jumpiness of David Trachtenberg’s editing and the theatrical artificiality of so many of the studio sets.
All that show-offy technical craft ends up overwhelming the characters and story. So although The Current War closes with an inspirational voiceover about the wonder of invention that might have doubled as a seductive Don Draper ad pitch, this is a movie stubbornly lacking in magic.
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
Production companies: The Weinstein Co., Thunder Road Pictures, Bazelevs, Film Rites, SunnyMarch
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland, Stanley Townsend, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton, Damien Molony
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenwriter: Michael Mitnick
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, Michael Mitnick, Adam Ackland, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Glasser, Bob Weinstein, Garrett Basch, Steve Zaillian, Ann Ruark
Director of photography: Chung-Hoon Chung
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Music: Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka
Editor: David Trachtenberg
Casting: Ellen Lewis
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)