Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, THE CURRENT WAR is the epic story of the cutthroat competition between the greatest inventors of the industrial age over whose electrical system would power the new century. Backed by J.P. Morgan, Edison dazzles the world by lighting Manhattan. But Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla, has seen fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design. Igniting a war of currents, Westinghouse and Tesla bet everything on risky and dangerous alternating current. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and written by playwright Michael Mitnick (Sex Lives of our Parents), THE CURRENT WAR also stars Katherine Waterston, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen, and Tuppence Middleton.
User Reviews: Filmed between December 2016 and March 2017, when The Current War debuted in a near-completed form at TIFF in September 2017, it was considered a major contender for the 2018 Academy Awards. Scheduled for a prime awards-season release on December 22, and with a number of heavyweight producers (Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk, Harvey Weinstein) and executive producers (Martin Scorsese, Bob Weinstein, Steven Zaillian), the film was to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, with Harvey in particular known for his ruthlessly efficient Oscar campaigns. He was overseeing the assemblage of the final cut in October when he was accused of sexual assault and rape by numerous women, and when he abandoned the project, the November release was shelved. Little more was heard of the film until October 2018, when Lantern Entertainment (which had acquired The Weinstein Company’s assets) and 13 Films brokered a deal to co-distribute the film internationally in July 2019. Then, in April of this year, 101 Studios announced they would handle a limited release in North America in October, whilst director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon revealed he had re-edited the film, adding five additional scenes but trimming the overall run time by 10 minutes.
So is it worth the wait? Well, it’s competently acted, reasonably entertaining, and moderately informative, but…it definitely won’t be involved in the 2020 Oscars. It’s certainly not as bad as a lot of critics (most of them reviewing the TIFF cut) have made out, but there’s no denying that Gomez-Rejon over-directs the whole thing. If you listen to Paul Haggis‘s commentary track on Crash (2004) he tells a story about a scene which was filmed to begin with an elaborate camera move via a crane transitioning into a dolly shot. In the final film, however, all of that is gone, and Haggis explains that he realised during the edit that the camera moves were unjustified, doing little but drawing attention to themselves. A lot of The Current War’s aesthetic draws attention to itself, primarily because Gomez-Rejon’s elaborate direction is so out of sync with Michael Mitnick‘s by-the-numbers script – like a screenplay intended for Michael Bay ended up being directed by Michael Mann. Although make no mistake, Gomez-Rejon is no Mann.
Telling the story of the "war of the currents", the film opens in New Jersey in 1880 as the pioneer of the long-lasting electric light bulb, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch proving once again that he can’t do an American accent), stages a typically grandiose demonstration of the power of large-scale low-voltage direct current (DC). Meanwhile, George Westinghouse (an characteristically non-psychotic Michael Shannon, the inventor of the railway air brake, begins to consider that the way of the future is in electricity. However, he sees flaws in DC, and so favours high-voltage alternating current (AC), using transformers to step down the voltage. Edison’s is the safer of the two systems, but so too is it more expensive, with a limited range compared to AC. The rest of the film takes place over the next 13 years as the two men come into direct conflict in the "race to light America", culminating in 1893 as each attempt to secure the contract for the Chicago World’s Fair.
Edison and Westinghouse are opposite examples of the nature of success in an American free-market prospering during a period of immense technological innovation. Edison is aware of and addicted to his celebrity, a visionary enamoured of his own genius, convinced that he and he alone has the mental capacity to achieve success. He’s also portrayed as a poor husband and father, and a lousy boss. On the other hand, the more stable, less flamboyant Westinghouse is devoted to his wife, values his collaborators, has no interest in fame, and doesn’t even see Edison as competition, believing they should be working together.
The most immediately notable aspect of The Current War, however, is its aesthetic, specifically Gomez-Rejon’s direction. Watching the film, I was reminded of Adrian Martin’s 1992 article, "Mise-en-scène is dead, or the expressive, the excessive, the technical and the stylish", in which he divides mise-en-scène into three broad categories: classical ("in which there is a definite stylistic restraint at work"), expressive ("general strategies of colour coding, camera viewpoint, sound design and so on enhance or reinforce the general "feel" or meaning of the subject matter"), and mannerist ("performs out of its own trajectories, no longer working unobtrusively at the behest of the fiction"). Whilst I would posit that The Current War lands somewhere between the expressive and mannerist styles, it definitely lies closer to mannerist, rather than the synergy between form and content found in the work of most expressive filmmakers (one of Martin’s examples of which is the aforementioned Michael Mann).
Some of Gomez-Rejon’s aesthetic choices are definitely justified, arising directly from the content and serving a clear thematic purpose, but a lot are in service of nothing but themselves. An early example of a justified decision is when the camera pans up from Edison’s New Jersey demonstration and travels to Westinghouse’s Pittsburgh home in what is made to appear a single shot, connecting the two men, not just in terms of geography, but also ideology. Another shot, shooting directly down on Edison’s elaborate circular light demonstration, also works well, instantly showing us his ambition and theatricality, plus the effectiveness of the demonstration. Once we reach Pittsburgh, a lengthy single-take shot introduces us to Westinghouse as he weaves his way through a throng of guests at a ball, with virtually everyone trying to catch his attention. This establishes him as a man of influence and considerable reach, but one who abhors the spotlight. In a later scene, Gomez-Rejon shoots Edison and his family in a train carriage using a fisheye lens. With Edison on one seat and his wife and two children facing him, the wide lens distorts the space between them unnaturally, mirroring the important theme of Edison neglecting his family in pursuit of his goals.
On the other hand, some of his choices are extremely hard to rationalise. That this should be important is attested by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland in their 2002 book, Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis. During their analysis of Martin’s tryptic division, they say of the mannerist style, "style is autonomous, for it is not linked to function, but draws attention to itself. In other words, style is not motivated or justified by the subject matter, but is its own justification". This is as apt a description of large portions of The Current War as you’re going to find. The plethora of Dutch angles, for example, are more often than not arbitrary. So too the use of split-screen (even splitting the screen into three at one point). Again though, the purpose of the technique is unclear (compare it with something like Requiem for a Dream (2000), where every use of split-screen is wholly justified). This ripped me out of the film, as I constantly found myself asking, "I wonder why he did that" rather than paying attention to the content.
The handling of the characters is also problematic. Cumberbatch plays Edison as virtually identical to his portrait of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014); a brilliant, driven, uncompromising innovator who’s as difficult to relate to in terms of humanity as he is easy to admire for mental acumen. Elsewhere, the film has a habit of downplaying the supporting characters. Neither Edison’s wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) nor Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) are developed beyond "supportive wife", whilst Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) gets just one decent scene. The worst example of this is, however, is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who is very much an afterthought, so under-developed that one wonders if it would have been better to leave him out altogether. This tendency is also found in a postscript which credits Edison, and Edison alone, with the development of the Kinetoscope (one of the first motion picture cameras), without so much as a mention of Louis Le Prince or William Kennedy Dickson.
Nevertheless, as serious as these problems are, I rather enjoyed The Current War, although, granted, that may be because I’ve always been drawn more to expressive mise-en-scène. It was never going to be the kind of Oscar contender that was obviously intended, but the behind-the-scenes turmoil and the critical mauling are not necessarily indicative of an inherently bad film. Sure, the script is weak in places, and Gomez-Rejon employs every camera trick known to man, more often than not without knowing why. But for all that, it kept me interested, and although I’d never argue it’s an especially well-realised historical drama, I did, for the most part, enjoy it.