The path to release has been a difficult one for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) latest film The Current War. Itself a dramatization of the struggle for control over the burgeoning birth of electricity throughout the U.S., the film would premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and wait just over two years to hit theaters in October 2019 due to getting caught up in distributor Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse allegations. Rumor is that Gomez-Rejon used the time between premiere and release to make adjustments to the film, which is why both the 2019 theatrical and the 2020 home release bear the additional title of The Director’s Cut. With the original release not an option, this review can only speak to what’s available and, frankly, it’s a mixed bag. The Current War manages to be both energetic and poignant, while somehow undeniably shallow. It doesn’t rewrite history in the manner of, say, The Greatest Showman, or carry the same affecting themes of similar period piece The Prestige. What it does possess is some fantastic line delivery by a top-tier cast, engaging direction, and lavish set and production design. All of which can be enjoyed from home now.
Everywhere Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels, his wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton), their children, and his secretary, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), follow. After a particularly trying business trip, Edison skips out on a meeting with engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and his wife Marguerite Westinghouse (Katherine Waterston), an act of such rudeness that Westinghouse sets about trying to figure out how to elevate direct current (DC) electricity as the stronger alternative to Edison’s alternating current (AC). As the two battle across the United States, they each take a turn working with immigrant inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). Where one sees nothing of use, the other sees futuristic vision. Suffering time and again to various losses, the battle between Edison and Westinghouse would prove to have ramifications the world continues to feel today.
The script by Michael Mitnick (The Giver) is best viewed as a docu-drama, not anything close to a documentary. It only follows a brief period in the lives of Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla, does so in unequal proportion, and seems only keen on their intersection and nothing more. While history does remember Edison as an inventor who brought us the light bulb, electricity, motion pictures and more, The Current War uses only the barest dialogue to hint at how much of a true bastard the man was. The film doesn’t cut out Edison’s use of the press to propagate his slander against an opponent, but it only hints at how Edison would buy up patents from others and proclaim them as his own originals. Similarly, Westinghouse is presented as a totally honorable man, the very opposite of Edison. A moment in the film wherein Westinghouse appears to break from the purest lawfulness is treated as a terrible breach of ethics which weighs upon him like the memory of surviving death during the Civil War. Tesla is treated the most decently, a futurist who only wants to see everyone’s lives improved for the better but is often looked down upon merely because he’s an immigrant. While history tends to look at each of these men differently, for the purpose of the film, Tesla is the most guileless, the most innocent, and the most careful of them all. Tesla is often used as subtext for how truly different Edison and Westinghouse are as individuals and how it’s not just their goals that set them apart from each other, but that they’re driven by legacy versus true altruism. This is, by no means, a suggestion that the film is boring in any manner. Just don’t expect it to be wholly accurate as each man is presented, with facets, yes, but more like icons.
Much of what works with The Current War comes from the cast. Gomez-Rejon gathered himself a group of solid performers, which he uses exactly as the story requires and nothing more. It’s a refreshing notion as so many films would include popular names and then ensure a high amount of screen time. Instead, his cast is used with a more subtle hand, allowing the cast to support the narrative as appropriate with no big grand scenes or extravagancies due to billing. Of the cast, Cumberbatch, Shannon, and Holland are the biggest names you’ll know, with Hoult more well-known for his work in the latest X-Men films, Waterston from the Fantastic Beasts films, and Middleton from Sense8. Cumberbatch is the trickiest of the cast to evaluate in a measurable way as his take on Edison feels quite a bit like his turns as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange: high-functioning intelligence with low-functioning empathy. Even though it’s quite a bit of what audiences have seen before, it’s no less engaging. Inciting the audience to frequently root for and against Edison alternatively as his performance adjusts to the narrative needs. Shannon is particularly measured as Westinghouse, making the honorable man seem perpetually even-keeled during the most stressful circumstances. It’s truly a gift to watch Shannon work, given his wide range, and to see him convey frustration and determination with just a line delivery is fascinating. For Holland, what’s nice about this role is it offers the young talent a chance to do something more than play the smart-but-out-of-his-depth roles he’s taken on lately (Spider-Man: Homecoming series, Spies in Disguise, Onward). His character is small compared to the rest of the narrative, but it’s a not-so insignificant role requiring Holland to play a more adult part. One bit that’s particularly refreshing, whether accurate to the history or not, is the depiction of Edison and Westinghouse with their respective wives. The script treats both of them as partners and neither actor, Middleton or Waterston, plays their role as anything less than an equal. As the lone outsider in the feud, Hoult’s portrayal of Tesla is charming, idealistic, and some of the best character work the actor’s done since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road or 2018’s The Favourite.
Fueling the sense that The Current War is more dramatic than real life, Gomez-Rejon’s direction is almost always moving to the point of feeling kinetic. It’s not distracting by any means, it just seemingly injects even conversational dialogue with energy, making the mundane feel large, the natural feel somber, and the significant feel giant. The beauty of cinema is how directors, using technology based on Edison’s original design, work with their crew to bring not just the past, but a vision of the past to life. In this case, it’s with the help of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (2003’s Oldboy), production designer Jan Roelfs (GATTACA), and costume designer Michael Wilkinson (TRON: Legacy) whose combination of visual skills create a version of the past that feels not like the early penny arcades Edison would design but something living and breathing.
As far as home releases go, The Current War: Director’s Cut is straight-forward and simple. Accompanying the film is a commentary with Homez-Rejon and three brief deleted scenes. Within the context of the completed film, these scenes do little to enhance the experience and make sense why they were cut or reedited. Considering all that the film has gone through to get to home release, it’s not unrealistic to expect more than this; however, some insight into the production from cast and crew would be interesting in light of the film’s journey. These minor supplements, though, neither detract nor enhance a cinematic experience which is largely enjoyable, even if it’s not as deep or intense as it seeks to be.
The Current War: Director’s Cut Special Features
- Feature commentary with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
- Deleted Scenes
Available on digital March 17th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD March 31st, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.