The Current War
by Matt Weiner
Isn’t there a rule that you shouldn’t make a movie about a subject that sets itself up for so many electricity-related puns if the final product is going to be so dim?
That’s the fate that befalls The Current War, a diverting but disjointed biopic that relies on an impeccable cast and flashy style to make up for its confused substance.
The bright spot: The Current War is much better than its protracted release history would suggest. After an expected holiday release in 2017, the movie was put on hold after the Weinstein Company imploded when news broke about Harvey Weinstein’s rape allegations.
Two years and a fresh re-cut from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon later, The Current War briskly takes us through key moments leading up to the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, excellent as always but maybe even better suited for Edison—or better still, just playing all the leading weirdos for an even more interesting gonzo edit) to power the Chicago World’s Fair.
The contest was the culmination of the War of the Currents, which pitted the world-famous inventor Edison and his direct current against the alternating current favored by Westinghouse, with an assist from Edison’s former employee and eccentric futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
The historical details alone should have made for an unusually exciting biopic. Edison might not deserve the blame for Topsy, but his animal body count is still high enough to start his own abattoir.
But whether it’s the invention of the electric chair or Westinghouse’s (stylized) backstory, the film lacks either the interest or the courage to pursue any of the subplots with any real depth.
Which would be surmountable, but the main action participants suffer the same neglect. As much as The Current War’s quick cuts and glassy sound effects try to ape the frenetic spirit of invention, the film is neutered when it comes to having anything of substance to actually say about these people and the trajectory they put the world on.
That’s a bizarre oversight for a script by Michael Mitnick that at least attempts some hand-waving toward a dark reflection of the very same world we’re now living in over a century later: a Gilded Age redux, the foundational mythmaking that has always been tied up between this country and the Great Men doing what it takes in the name of creation, even the vaporware of Silicon Valley (er, Menlo Park) luminaries.
But how about the powerhouse acting! That distraction alone coupled with the film’s tortuous journey to screens suggests that while The Current War isn’t the most insightful biopic, it has a good claim to the one we deserve at the moment.