The Current War Fails to Electrify Audiences

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The Current War 2019

The Current War is a film with an interesting subject, great visuals and fine cinematography, and a star-packed cast. Unfortunately it doesn’t provide anything close to an electrifying movie experience. It’s a shame, too, because a more through character study of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikolai Tesla and Samuel Insull should be a fascinating look at a Mount Rushmore of minds that helped shape the next century-plus of American history. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon manages only to craft a superficial and seemingly sanitized examination of the battle for America’s fledgling electrical grid during the Industrial Revolution from Michael Mitnick’s screenplay.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison as a focused, driven yet stubborn inventor of devices that seem magical to the general public. That much is likely true, but the film doesn’t try very hard to show the less magnanimous side of the man. He lost his hearing at a fairly young age and had a bit of vicious streak, especially towards Tesla. He was proud to tell people that his inventions never killed anyone, yet he was consulted on the creation of the electric chair for humane execution, rationalizing it as a means to prove to the public that Westinghouse’s alternating current power system was extremely dangerous. Another method he employed to discredit his competitive rival was to demonstrate the killing potential of AC power by publically electrocuting animals ranging from horses to elephants, and the film does include the horse scene (don’t worry, it’s very tame, just like everything else in the movie) but it doesn’t show any real consequence for his actions. For his part, Cumberbatch, who also serves as an executive producer along with Martin Scorsese, certainly isn’t a bad Edison, but the script’s lack of depth never focused on any one aspect of the man long enough for Cumberbatch to really show of his talents.

Michael Shannon typically plays the heavy. He’s been a violent mobster, a half-crazy pursuer of a romantically involved creature of the ocean depths, and a murderous Kryptonian bent on world domination. It was refreshing to see him play a fairly likeable Westinghouse. Whereas Edison is shown as more of a pure inventor, mostly interested design and development, Westinghouse is played as a visionary, someone who sees the utility of an invention and figures out a way to make their product better or get it into the hands or homes of the most people. Yet he’s not above getting his hands dirty too, slinging mud on Edison’s involvement with the electric chair fiasco.  He was more kind to Tesla but only as a means to an end. Again, Shannon was quite good, and it was fun to see him play a non-villainous character, but the script was just as flawed for the Westinghouse part. There’s a scene where Westinghouse and Tesla meet at the Chicago World’s Fair and the dialogue, which was meant to be a powerful moment in the climax of the movie, made me want to stand up and punt the nearest popcorn bucket at the screen.

Nicholas Hoult has been on the cusp of stardom for years, getting the most exposure for his role as the Beast from Fox’s X-Men movie franchise before the rights were reacquired by Marvel/Disney. Tesla, a misunderstood genius today as much as he was in his prime, is mostly ignored in this film. He plays Tesla as a bit of a dandy and a socially awkward introvert. In reality, he gave rousing lectures on science to celebrities of the day, and who probably battled obsessive compulsive disorder for much of his life. Hoult gets to wear the best costumes in the movie, but gets shorted on dialogue. Tesla alone is worthy of a major biopic, and this tease of a role was deeply unsatisfying.

Tom Holland plays Samuel Insull, who I admit I had to look up after the show. The name didn’t immediately stick out to me, but he was a pretty big player in the burgeoning business world. Holland, of course, has exploded in popularity for his stellar work as Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man, but his boyish looks might have worked to his detriment here.  He never shows Insull as having much of a backbone, and comes off as nervous and subservient to Edison and Westinghouse. I highly doubt Insull--who is credited with pioneering the creation and use of holding companies including what would later become A&T, founded the Chicago Civic Opera House and a regular face on the cover of Time magazine--was the shrinking violet the script made him out to be.

Gomez-Rejon is best known for directing television episodes for Glee and American Horror Story. The Current War has a similar vibe. The costumes and sets are a heady feast for the eyes, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that a narrator with smooth but authoritative baritone would start narrating over still pictures until the next live reenactment scene would be presented. There’s a small bit of cursing but there’s no real violence, no sexual situations, no one is really vilified or exonerated--it’s just a long Discovery or History Channel program, banal and safely inoffensive to anyone (you might figure PETA will have some gripe with the electrocuted horse scene, sanitized though it was). It’s an utter waste cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s excellent work. Noted for 2003’s modern noir classic Oldboy, Chung provided some luxurious of actors trying in vain to give impact to script devoid of exactly that.  

The film was completed in 2017 and was in the editing process at The Weinstein Company when co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s scandal broke. It’s sat on a shelf until they started liquidating assets. The Current War was picked up for distribution by 101 Studios in the US and Lantern Entertainment internationally. It was released in the UK back in July and hits American theatres on October 25, 2019. It’ will probably end up being a respectable windfall for 1010 Studios, who only paid $3 million for the rights, just based on the drawing power of the four Marvel and DC superhero actors in the cast, but anyone expecting any sort of revelation regarding Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse or Insull will leave the theatre disappointed. It’s a low-voltage history lesson wrapped in sugar-coated insulation that will have you reaching for your half-gallon plastic cup of high fructose corn syrup or aspartame frequently just to keep you awake for the longest 107 minutes I’ve sat through in years.

2.0 / 5.0