DIRECTED BY: ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON/2019
As a follow-up to his 2015 film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon dove into the script from Michael Mitnick for a film entitled The Current War. This film documents the power struggle between Thomas Edison, George and Marguerite Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla, for who was going to win the battle for bringing electricity to the towns and cities across America, using either Edison’s Direct Current (DC), or Westinghouse and Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC). Originally, this film was slated to debut in 2017 but fell victim to the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The film was, to quote the band AC/DC, “Thunderstruck”. As The Weinstein Company fell apart, this title was sold off. Two years later, with additional footage shot in the meantime, the film re-emerges as The Current War: Director’s Cut, and opens nationally on October 25, 2019.
The film opens with Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) demonstrating his electric light bulbs to a train of investors and reporters and we dive right into his race to light up a section of Manhattan using his direct current. Accompanied by his wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) and his two children, he is seeking the financial backing of J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen).
Meanwhile, George (Michael Shannon) and Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) Westinghouse, husband and wife but also business partners, are seeking to exploit a problem with Edison’s DC current as a means to partner with him. They understand that DC won’t give Edison the distance he needs to power cities and towns without additional power plants and wiring. AC current would allow them a chance to power areas much larger than what Edison is doing, at a fraction of the cost. They know that together, with their AC current and Edison’s bulbs, they could set themselves up to supply electricity to homes and businesses across America.
Edison, however, sees them instantly as a rival, and along with his assistant Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), begins a smear campaign against Westinghouse. Eventually, Edison employee Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), walks away from Edison with his own vision of AC current, and the war for current in America begins, culminating in who will be awarded the chance to showcase their current at the Chicago fair.
The all-star cast of The Current War: Director’s Cut delivers a solid, compelling story of corporate feuding that continues to resonate with our society today. Anyone who has heard of Westinghouse, JP Morgan Chase, Charles Schwab, and General Electric will immediately recognize the significance of this “war” for electricity. The script shows the truly forward thinking that was behind Edison’s and Tesla’s thinking particularly. Edison comments that he has ideas that would take 12 lifetimes to accomplish, and Tesla, who described himself as a futurist, was no different.
What made this portrayal so refreshing was that corporate greed, while present, was not the driving force for any of these men. Rather, they all desired more noble goals and pursuits, namely the advancement of society for all. Leaving the world a better place and legacy were more of the reasons for it all. Edison is constantly portrayed as someone who left a lot of potential profits on the table for the purer focus of creating things that enriched mankind. He even holds a moral position of never wanting to create something that would be used to take a human life. This is ironic given the glaring obvious example of what device was born from this current war: the electric chair.
Westinghouse was a businessman, through and through, and made no apologies for seeking profits. However, he did not long to gain these profits on the backs of his fellow man. Profits were more derived from offering a better service at a fraction of the cost, rather than raising prices to gouge the consumer. He and his wife lament any decision to let go of their workers when the war begins to jeopardize the Westinghouse corporation, seeing ways, instead, to keep everyone they could employed. This may of course be Hollywood glossing over the greed that existed, but given how often businessmen are seen as the villains in films, the script could have easily depicted this side of things as the root cause of this current war, but it doesn’t. Instead, we see largely moral characters veering into unsavory actions when the competition, and the pride they possess internally, begin to affect their moral foundations. This is something most people can understand and relate to.
The Current War: Director’s Cut is not going to be the Oscar-bait that The Weinstein Company originally planned it to be before cutting it loose. The performances are tight, and the cast is top-rate, but it isn’t an award winner. Several early reviews have seized upon this to downplay the film as an average affair. I, however, saw it as a film that radiates the brilliance of three men whose pursuits continue to enrich us all. Hollywood seems to be either pursuing giant blockbuster films, or tiny indie films, with the middle-sized adult drama being squeezed out of the box office. This is a film that, while not an award contender, is sure to be a solid, crowd-pleasing story that resonates with a large audience….if only it can find its audience at the local theater without being overlooked for the larger blockbusters and sequels that are taking up space around it.
It is a film that accomplishes exactly what it means to. In one pivotal scene, Samuel Insull warns Edison that he will make a decision that will cause his legacy to either be P.T. Barnum, or Sir Isaac Newton. As a film, The Current War: Director’s Cut finds the balance that allows it to be both: A serious and important film, and an entertaining one at that.