'The Current War': Cumberbatch's Edison squares up against Shannon's Westinghouse, and we're stuck with the electricity bill

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Holland star in "The Current War." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester.

Two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, a movie about Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla and, for a climax, the dazzling illumination of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, failed utterly to ignite the movie world.

En route to its premiere, "The Current War" met with more than the usual amount of uber-meddling from distributor Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Co. A few weeks after the Toronto festival, The New York Times published the first history-making story by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey detailing a gathering storm of sexual assault and serial harassment allegations against Weinstein. After decades of one mogul's predation and dozens of actresses' maligned and sucker-punched careers, suddenly, that was that. The unreleased "Current War," meantime, went into turnaround and became an asterisk.

Now there's a director's cut of "The Current War," already released in England, featuring newly shot footage, various cuts, reorderings and additions, a new musical score and a 10-minutes-shorter running time. I never saw the earlier version. This one remains a bit of a mess but a pretty interesting one, as well as one of the few films this year deserving (in both admirable and dissatisfying ways) of the adjective "instructive."

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl") sweats like crazy to visually energize a story largely about alternating current versus direct current, embodied by the driven, competitive but very different inventors and industrialists at the story's center. The fictionalized history covered by "The Current War" takes place in the last two decades of the 19th century. Benedict Cumberbatch stews and furrows his way through the role of the perpetually distracted Edison, in a performance more concerned with interior tension than audience love. Unkempt, increasingly unscrupulous in his competitive tactics, Edison also lives in the shadow of personal tragedy; Tuppence Middleton portrays his wife in a few quick early scenes.

With the sometime assistance of the brilliant Serbian-born Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), Edison scores a conspicuous early victory in the electrical race by lighting up a good chunk of New York City with his direct current. His wily but fair-minded competitor is Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, reminding the world he can play subtle and intriguing men of honorable character), boasting the more efficient DC system. As "The Current War" proceeds, Westinghouse's company powers more and more of the outlying nation, away from Manhattan's bright lights. And while the movie lacks a conventional structure — it's based on a musical play screenwriter Michael Mitnick wrote in grad school at Yale — the third act concerns who will win the contract to illuminate the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The movie offers one peculiarity after another. The director's cut edition foregrounds the supporting character of Tesla, if only to explain to the audience his relationships to Edison and Westinghouse. (The scene where Tesla's upbraided by his boss as a measly "immigrant" wasn't in the original cut.) The current and much-loved "Spider-Man" headliner, Tom Holland, plays another secondary character, Edison's devoted assistant Samuel Insull. He comes into prominence late in the game; as Marguerite Westinghouse, Katherine Waterston does a lot with a little. Smart actors, and this ensemble's full of them, know they needn't do a lot of extraneous anything with elegant Gilded Age period costumes handling so much of the work for them.

The movie's cool to the touch, dealing with characters that might be considered chilly or remote. Nervous about boring the audience, director Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung spin the camera 'round and 'round, here a twirling overhead zoom, there a nostril-proximity fish-eye close-up. It's strenuous, though the settings and production designs shine.

The movie, which began filming in late 2016, was made mostly in England, and the digital effects bringing the Chicago World's Fair to life tantalizes with its glimpses of a long-vanished, blindingly bright revolution in technology.

Westinghouse was, by most accounts, an unusually progressive and humane industrial giant, crediting his engineers and inventors by name in his company's many patents. Edison, by contrast, led with his egocentric belief in self-branding and put his name on everything. "The Current War" may be tough on Edition, properly, but it's a better movie because of it.

As for the director: Now that we know he can do lots of different things with a camera, I hope in his next film he picks what works best for him and for the story at hand.


2.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violent content and thematic elements)

Running time: 1:47