Review: 'The Current War' Succeeds Despite Production Setbacks

Jonathan Moore ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The Current War, a film by Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon explores the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to provide electricity to the United States in the late 1800s and the emergence of futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). It was filmed and scheduled for release in the fall of 2017 after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, but, due to controversies surrounding the film’s distributor, the film disappeared for a couple of years until it was acquired by 101 Studios. The film also arrives in a new cut by the director as the film releases under the title, The Current War: Director’s Cut. The result is a fast-paced period piece with an electric visual style, strong performances by the ensemble, and a pulsating score. The pace can occasionally lead to a jumpy feel to the film, but the other elements keep it moving.
Opening in late 1880s New Jersey, as Thomas Edison debuts his field of lights to investors, Edison is on the rise. Arriving at the White House for a meeting with financier J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), Edison showcases an early form of the phonograph impressing the President and begins to cut a financial deal with Morgan. On his way home, Edison blows off a dinner with Westinghouse and his wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) set up by Edison’s wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton). This angers Westinghouse and, following a successful demonstration in NYC, he begins to compete against Edison.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Current War: Director’s Cut. Photo Credit: 101 Studios.
That conflict grows between the two men as they fight to claim sections of the United States with their companies and electricity systems. Through setbacks and personal loss, both men push the boundaries, both morally and technically. Their discoveries and side effects even lead them to be connected to the start and the invention of the electric chair. All the while, a young man arrives in America with a brain full of futuristic ideas named Nikola Tesla. His path links with both Edison and Westinghouse as the three men fight to control the future of electricity in the United States.
One of The Current War‘s biggest strengths is its visual style. Rejon vibrantly directs imbuing the film with an electric feeling. The scenes and the actors within them feel propelled forward like the characters are by their pursuits. The “unveiling of electricity” sequences throughout the film are technically impressive as the score and shots are combined to produce some fantastic shots. When Edison or Westinghouse cuts a deal for a city, Rejon uses a large board with quick and stylish camera movements to showcase a physical representation of the battle of wills between the two men.
Nicholas Hoult in The Current War: Director’s Cut. Photo Credit: 101 Studios.
Rejon also evokes early film techniques for several montages, including the use of early reels of film, slyly acknowledging Edison’s future invention of moving images and cinema. Repeated flashbacks to Edison blowing off Westinghouse are done with a flutter of moving images as well.
While this style also lends the film to a quicker pace than most historical dramas, it threatens to overwhelm the story and characters within it. At times, The Current War feels like a limited series condensed to a feature-length film. Characters may disappear from the narrative for a chunk of time and suddenly reappear, having completely changed with few hints how. Despite this speed, the film also has moments to breathe and there are some terrifically scored montages that evoke character growth that balances out the rush.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Tuppence Middleton in The Current War: Director’s Cut. Photo Credit: 101 Studios.
The slower moments are tenderly done as the men and those supporting them deal with the consequences of their pursuits. The pace slows during these sections to let the characters naturally feel and experience their emotions. While the performances are great throughout the film as conniving abounds and Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla present their ideas and acts of showmanship, the real heart and pain come through in the quieter moments. Edison goes through several dark patches over the course of the film and Cumberbatch nails these moments. In his hands, they are heartbreaking and show vulnerability to his Edison that he otherwise hides through boasts and deceitful moves.
Westinghouse also goes through struggles and Shannon brings a strong, forceful determination to beat Edison, despite struggling through setbacks and other forces in his way. And those beside them are great as well. Waterston’s Marguerite shows herself to be stronger than the typical suffering wife of a genius and Tom Holland‘s Samuel Insull, Edison’s right-hand man, is a strong moral core for Edison even as the desperation to push Westinghouse out of the market grows. Hoult is a strong Tesla as well, capturing the charm and intellect even as Tesla occasionally feels relegated to a secondary player who has an impact on both sides of the battle.
Michael Shannon in The Current War: Director’s Cut. Photo Credit: 101 Studios.
With strong performances and a charged style, The Current War flies by. One of the major keys to that is also the score. The score is a pulsating mix of synth and classical violins and other instruments. It helps to provide the emotional flow of the scenes and is used very effectively in key moments. During key montages of character’s successes and breakthroughs, emotional value is enhanced by the hopeful score. Its key use comes in these moments and especially during the climactic World’s Fair sequence in Chicago.
Despite the release struggles and re-edit, The Current War: Director’s Cut is an engaging and highly enjoyable historical drama. With strong performances, a fantastic score and a style that while occasionally threatening to overload the film, provides a strong current to the film. For those interested to see the end result of all of the buzz and controversies, this is worth checking out.
Overall Grade: B
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