movie review

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

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

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Thomas Edison drama The Current War opens this week as The Current War: The Director’s Cut, which is odd since the U.S. has never seen a “theatrical cut.” There was one, but it largely played festivals. I saw it in September 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was talked up as that year’s awards-bait release for The Weinstein Company. A month later, it looked as if it would be a casualty of Harvey’s disgrace, its “W” a scarlet letter.

Two years later, the association has dimmed, the film reshaped, semi-retitled, and owned by another company. (Harvey is now uncredited.) I don’t know exactly how much was altered, but it did seem trimmer and easier to follow. I liked it a little more, but my response is much the same. That said, I’ve slightly rewritten the review, polishing some lines and expanding a point or two. I’d like to say I eliminated all references to Weinstein but I actually didn’t mention him the first time around. On the whole, though, this is my preferred cut.

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 the things they now can’t do without. That’s why biopics were invented: to give credit where it’s due and also to help big stars win Oscars between superhero movies. 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 light and power the world. Edison favored DC (direct current), while Westinghhouse was committed to the cheaper, more efficient, but more perilous AC (alternating current). A champion of AC, the Serbian-American Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) would leave Edison’s employ and ally himself — briefly — with Westinghouse.

Competing electrical currents don’t scream “cinema” the way, for example, racecars do, although someone like Aaron Sorkin might have used flashy animation to show what’s happening inside those wires and thereby bring the science to life. That would have helped here — it would have made the AC vs. DC fight less abstract. Instead, the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, has created visual interest by shooting the movie from a rowboat. Not literally, but that’s how it feels. First, the camera (with a fishbowl lens) tips to the left so that Cumberbatch’s Edison stretches up and into the center. Then, it tips to the right to show who he’s talking to. Then, it jumps back to Edison, a little lower in the frame, sinking, bobbing. Is Gomez-Rejon trying to simulate an alternating current? Is he trying to evoke the inner life of the man said to have “engineered his own reality?” Or does he just like playing with his camera?

The problem with Gomez-Rejon’s whooshy pyrotechnics — the dazzling computer-generated imagery, the camera that floats over picturesque city squares or arcs around speeding trains — is that the movie’s form and content seem only nodding acquaintances. All this “cinema magic” has been put in the service of depicting a world just prior to its transformation by electricity. It’s as if Gomez-Rejon is getting ahead of his own story, which is of men trying to make light bulbs work. The movie does look gorgeous. Given all the CGI it has surprising texture. The chiaroscuro frames are full of whirling gizmos, along with men in heavy dark coats and mutton chops. (This must have been 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, has a deeply conflicted view of the man who would co-invent motion-picture tech. That’s admirable, because he never reduces Edison to a biopic cliché. It’s also frustrating, because the director’s romantic, gee-whiz style leads you to expect more dramatic clarity. (Form, meet content. Content, meet form.) Westinghouse is actually the movie’s good guy. At the outset, he wants to join forces with Edison, but Edison coldly blows him off, leaving Westinghouse and his wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), waiting on the platform while Edison’s train (or a CG simulation thereof) zooms by. Edison already has a patron in J.P. Morgan (played by the astounding chameleon Matthew Macfadyen of Succession, here with a cherry nose) and furthermore has no use for Westinghouse’s AC. Why won’t Edison give AC a chance? It’s unclear. Maybe only because he didn’t think of it first. He’s driven to demonstrate AC’s lethalness by inviting the press to watch him use it to execute large animals (though the movie stops before the most famous execution, of the Coney Island elephant whose demise would be the first known snuff film).

We want to like Edison. He loves his wife (Tuppence Middleton) and kids fiercely. He’s played by the star, Cumberbatch, whose alien-sea-reptile visage has moved the boundary posts of handsome. But charismatic as he is, the actor has a nagging flaw: His American accent is shaky, his vowels hitting icebergs in diction in the mid-Atlantic. He’s a little opaque. Shannon, in contrast, is a hoary, likable Westinghouse, radiating as much decency as a man that wealthy is ever likely to and blessed with a wife who’s 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 the center of the movie. He’s a businessman, not a visionary. Hoult’s Tesla seems peripheral, an afterthought, and the movie’s fourth star — Tom Holland, as Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull — gets his big scene too late for his character to register fully.

The Current War: The Director’s Cut is visually lucid but thematically scattershot. Alternating current might be a fine principle for lighting the world, but movies require a current that’s more direct.

The Current War Is Absorbing, But Never Snaps Into Focus