MovieMonday: The Current War


This film sets out to personalize an 1890s battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, the two innovators who wanted to standardize how electricity was delivered to American homes and businesses.

There’s plenty of material for a story about this situation, but this presentation mostly does not work.

The lead character is Thomas Alva Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the most famous inventor of American history.  He does not invent the light bulb but develops the first usable light bulb and patents it.  At the time of the movie, Edison is promoting his distributed current (DC) with  installations in New York.  In addition, he is working on other big ideas, including the phonograph and moving pictures.

Edison is also what a young friend of mine would call a “dick.”   He hires a penniless immigrant named Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) and mistreats him, breaking promises.  He goes to some lengths to smear George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon,) whose alternating current (AC) system proves more practical and less expensive in demonstrations in smaller cities in the East and Midwest.

Westinghouse hires Tesla and pays him well; together they develop one of the first hydroelectric power systems, a “dynamo” set at the base of Niagara Falls that provides electricity to Buffalo, NY.

The movie tries to build tension as Edison and Westinghouse compete to install an electrical system that will light up the night at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but it doesn’t deliver a satisfying resolution.

The Problems

Making films that personalize historical figures is a fraught business because what matters most is what those persons have done.  Who cares what Galileo was really like?  Does it matter what Abraham Lincoln had for dinner the night he announced the Emancipation Proclamation?  The challenge is to link personal observations with historical or artistic or scientific significance.

This movie sketches in the characters of Edison and Westinghouse and their private and public lives, but it jumps around in jerky shots and short scenes that are often out of sequence.  The intent may have been to avoid making the thing feel like a sciency costume drama of the Gilded Age, but the effect is to make the audience think constantly, “Wait — what?” It’s distracting.

The Current War also doesn’t make use of its ancillary characters.  The most memorable line about Tesla, the enigmatic polymath, is that his name will never be on anything — haha now.  Edison’s loyal secretary, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), appears in many scenes, but his gotcha moment comes when he asks Edison whether the great man wants to be remembered as P.T. Barnum or Isaac Newton.  (This when Edison is attempting, falsely, to name the electric chair he commissioned as a “Westinghouse.”  Much also is made of Edison’s avowed opposition to the death penalty, possibly to make him less obnoxious to post-millennial audiences.)

In another odd characterization, J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen,) the premier financier of the US Industrial Revolution who funded both inventors’ electric companies, comes across as unexpectedly passive, but is described by Edison’s young son as having a funny nose.  Maybe the real J.P. had a red nose like Rudolph the Reinder, but why mention that and say nothing about Edison’s near-total deafness?

Then there is a single Civil War scene, scattered across several acts, of Westinghouse as a young Union soldier encountering a Confederate soldier pointing a pistol at his face. This may aim to demonstrate how Westinghouse handles challenge, but it comes out of the blue and is like nothing else in the plot.  Why not highlight instead the inventor’s patenting an air brake for trains (one that is influential even today) just a few years after the war?

The Provenance

The first version of this movie earned mixed reviews in 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a scheduled broad release was canceled.  Its director, the well-regarded Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, took the opportunity to rejigger the film, adding and subtracting scenes to come up with this current version.

Timing was another problem.  Harvey Weinstein was executive producer of that earlier version, and the TIFF airing came a month after Weinstein was charged with multiple abuses of women.  The film now in theaters lists Martin Scorsese, a Gomez-Rejon mentor, as executive producer.

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