The Current War Is an Absorbing Biopic That Never Quite Snaps Into Focus

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Benjamin Cumberbatch in The Current War. Photo: Dean Roger/© 2017 The Weinsten Company. All Rights Reserved.

The problem with kids today — or kids any day, or most grown-ups most days — is that they don’t know how difficult it was for someone to invent all the things they now can’t do without. That’s why someone had to invent biopics. The inventor of biopics will get his biopic someday and the actor will probably win an Oscar, which is another reason there are so many biopics. The Toronto International Film Festival is teeming with them, which is why the word “Oscar” comes up in so many articles. Toronto is also where film lovers come to have their brains woken up after the wits-dulling summer. A movie like The Current War is better received than it would be at any other time because you come away having learned about something, in this case electricity. Viewers who aren’t interested in electricity should talk to people in parts of Texas and Florida and the whole of Cuba, where they could use some about now.

The Current War is a quasi-biopic, insofar as it has two (three if you squint) subjects and its focus is unusually pointy-headed. It chronicles the struggle of the prickly celebrity inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the civic-minded capitalist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over the electricity delivery system that will eventually light and power the world. Edison favored DC (direct current), while Westinghouse was committed to the cheaper, more efficient, but more perilous AC (alternating current). Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) would ally himself with Westinghouse, but not before taking his share of abuse from Edison.

The differences in currents don’t automatically lend themselves to cinema, although someone like Aaron Sorkin might have used flashy animation to depict what’s happening inside those wires and bring the science to life. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has decided to create visual interest by shooting the movie from a rowboat.

Not really — that’s only how it feels. Now the camera (affixed with a fish-eye lens) tips to the left so that Cumberbatch’s visage stretches up and into the center. Now there’s a cut to another person (not in a fishbowl) with the camera slanting right. Perhaps this is how Gomez-Rejon means to evoke an alternating current. If so, he really should have used the bobbing alternate angles only on Westinghouse and shot Edison more directly. Or maybe he’s trying to suggest the inner life of a man who is said to “engineer his own reality.” Or he just likes playing with the camera. The problem is that he’s using all these cinematic tricks to evoke a world just prior to its transformation by electricity, as well as by Edison’s next big invention — cinema. It’s as if he’s getting ahead of his own story.

He creates quite a world, though, much of it computer-generated but full of men in heavy dark coats and mutton chops. (This was probably the itchiest era in which to be a wealthy American.)

You’d assume that Thomas Edison would be the hero of any movie he’s in, but the screenwriter, Michael Mitnick, ensures he’ll be a hard man to like. The people who work for him are scared and his kids feel neglected. At the outset, Westinghouse wants to join forces but Edison is too worn out trying to raise money from J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen with a red nose) to take the meeting — Westinghouse is left waiting on a platform while Edison’s train (or a CG simulation thereof — the trains look fake) zooms by. And why is he so stubborn in his rejection of AC? You watch appalled as he electrocutes large animals to demonstrate the current’s lethality — though the movie stops before the most famous one, the Coney Island elephant whose demise became the first-known snuff film. And it’s Edison who’s the dirty fighter, the one who bad-mouths Westinghouse to the press. (Why is it that in period movies the press lines up for quotes and the person being interviewed always ends with, “You got what you need, boys?”)

We want to like him, both because he’s the biggest celebrity inventor America has ever produced and because he’s played by Cumberbatch, whose alien-reptile visage has moved the boundary posts of handsome. But Cumberbatch, charismatic as he is, has one nagging flaw: He can’t do any accent except his own upper-crust British one. As Edison, his vowels are gratingly flat and from no place on Earth. Apart from loving his wife (Tuppence Middleton) and inventing the electric light, audio recording, movies, and a few other things, this Edison has few redeeming qualities and remains opaque. Shannon, on the other hand, is a magnetic, hoary Westinghouse, radiating as much decency as a man that wealthy is ever likely to and blessed with a wife (Katherine Waterston) who is his equal in character and intellect. As the Chicago World’s Fair — with its unparalleled opportunity to introduce electric light and power — approaches, Westinghouse’s chief deficit is that he’s not a celebrity.

Apart from those nutty camera angles and lenses, which throw you out of the action, The Current War is absorbing, and the opening night Toronto audience clearly enjoyed it. It never quite snaps into focus, though. Tesla remains remote and Tom Holland as Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull, gets his big scene too late in the film for his character to register fully. Even with electrocutions and shots in which switches are thrown and towns light up for the first time, it doesn’t have the excitement of a good cinematic yarn. I think the reason, in the end, is that while alternating current is a fine principle for lighting the world, movies require a current more direct.

The Current War Is Absorbing, But Never Snaps Into Focus