Look past the inherent fact that The Current War has been affixed to its figurative shelf for two years in the wake of Hollywood scandal, and there’s perhaps still a half-decent film to be discovered. A biopic chronicling the epic footrace during the 1880s and 90s, between giants of encapsulated energy Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse? Compelling Oscar season hook, yes. Legitimately enjoyable drama with staying power? Not as confidently, yes; but it gets very close to reaching its maximum wattage. Perhaps its relative themes may have hit a bit too close to the arduous journey needed for this insurance write off to hit the screen.
Benedict Cumberbatch stifles his beloved British brogue to assume the form of Edison, the Midwestern native who surpassed Ben Franklin to become the true wizard of electricity from his hub in Menlo Park, and specifically “direct current.” His closest competition is the ruthless Westinghouse (a confident Michael Shannon), claiming to have found a more cost-efficient method for larger stretches via “alternating current” lines for communities. His ace in the hole, Serbian born Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), a self-proclaimed genius just looking for his own break. Simply put, ingenuity fights cost fights efficiency, a battle by which no clear winner is drawn, but where egos are deliberately exposed for the better.
Edison is seen as an equal parts idea-maker and showman, though to his family, more PT Barnum than Isaac Newton. And they say it like it’s to be taken as a fatal warning. Cumberbatch is absolutely dizzying in the role, one of his best outside of his Marvel misadventures, and since his Sherlock skyrocketed him to international acclaim. Confident, motivated, graceful and downright ebullient. The only thing missing from his public persona would need to be an elaborate cane to twirl. But he’ll settle for effortlessly setting a snowy field or a large chunk of Manhattan ablaze with light. The kind of efforts that can sway public opinion in a positive light, whilst hiding the real concerns that can come while approving patents and seeking regulatory approval.
This is something Westinghouse is hoping more for. Regulation on the product, while working his way faster and cheaper through the country. Shannon’s good like that, being the villainous type who can merge ruthless and altruistic, while still thinking for the greater good. And maintain an evil edge, on top. Having the maverick Tesla, whom the English-born Hoult portrays with nascent skill, certainly helps in the long-term.
For The Current War as a feature, it is difficult not to reflect on the misfortune director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon experienced to nurture its eventual big-screen release. Its world premiere in Toronto two years (or an eternity) ago carried some negative reception, followed by the Harvey Weinstein scandal causing its distribution status to be shelved. Thank goodness for exec producer Martin Scorsese, who helped to save the film from its awkward limbo. Touted as the “Director’s Cut”, Gomez-Rejon managed to rework his product, hopefully making it more rounded.
The finished product, still, is a bit rough around the edges. Compared to his previous film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a film I whimsically adored in its genre-defying YA adaptation style, Current War is not so fully developed. Edison and Westinghouse, their conflict is clear; screenwriter Michael Mitnick (The Giver) makes that painfully obvious. Almost Social Network-esque with their back-and-forth, even going so as far as to mimic some bouts of rapid-fire editing. But I wasn’t as certain about nearly everything else. Family ties really could’ve been better established, particularly for Thomas. The presence of Mrs. Edison (Tuppence Middleton) and their kids, is frustratingly questionable. Whatever purpose they serve was lost on me.
Mrs. Westinghouse (an enjoyable Katherine Waterston), at least helps to light a fire under her husband’s keister, pushing him to keep going. The rest of the supporting cast, noble as they are, strive to be more than mere decoration, but fall short. Tom Holland’s Sam Insell (Edison’s longtime secretary), delightful as he appears, fails to fight against a slab of stilted one-liners. Ditto for Matthew McFadyen as the pushy JP Morgan, as much a titan of industry as his name could lead now. And yet, had he been written more fervently into the script, I could’ve approved the necessity of his foil toward Edison more openly.
I knew I’d have wanted to enjoy The Current War. Very much. A lot, really. Being a mild fanatic of Mr. Crumbersnatch, I was hoping his performance could’ve steered this otherwise battered ship in its destined direction. Everything apart from his portrayal of Edison is what I take issue with. That it’s all still a trite slog to sit through. Whatever alterations Gomez-Rejon did following the Toronto premiere could only go so far to make his film palatable. Even at 101 minutes, moving at, dare I say it, an electric pace, it could have clicked better. One of many things swirling in my head upon exiting the theater. Like I knew this could’ve been more than it amounted to. That doesn’t mean I’d be against revisiting this drama time and again. The battle between Edison and Westinghouse is still highly compelling, well worth the admission price. Trying to build the rest of your film around that battle… sadly not so much. (C; 3/5 Horns Up!)
The Current War: Director’s Cut is in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for some violent content and thematic elements; 101 minutes.