Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s historical drama, The Current War, has had a post-production and release schedule almost as unpredictable and dangerous as the electrical pulses running through the crux of the main plot. Originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, it was critically panned (31% on Rotten Tomatoes) and its wide release delayed indefinitely due to the fact that the film was owned by The Weinstein Company, and Harvey was right at the cusp of his comeuppance.
After the film was sold and distribution rights changed, it was finally scheduled to come out in theatres. However, to his credit, Gomez-Rejon discovered that Executive Producer Martin Scorsese had negotiated final cut privileges. As such, he convinced Scorsese to allow him to do some reshoots. This let him address some of the criticisms – chief among them that the movie was way too long and boring – by creating new, more exciting scenes, and also by trimming about 10 minutes from the overall run time.
It’s admirable that Gomez-Rejon made the most of his second chance at a first impression, giving us the official “Director’s Cut” of the film now in theatres. Unfortunately, it’s still plenty boring, and some of the creative choices were just too weird to reconcile.
The film is essentially about the corporate/innovative competition between Thomas Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to see who would be the one to lead the electrical revolution and create a power grid for the United States. Edison preferred a direct current, requiring copper wires that were buried underground, while Westinghouse opted for the cheaper, and slightly more dangerous alternating current, which could be insulated and suspended from poles.
Given that these are the only technical or scientific specifics we ever really get between the two (Edison begins to explain the difference in a courtroom scene, but is quickly interrupted), any historical curiosity or suspense is instantly killed the moment we see a now-ubiquitous wooden power line erected about 15 minutes into the film. By that point, we already know who won, and also that it didn’t really matter, because Edison’s name is the one that still carries gravitas and weight (evidenced by an end sequence where he’s already moved on to his next big idea – motion pictures), while Westinghouse is really only familiar if you pay close attention to the brand of light bulbs you buy.
You could argue that this is the case with a lot of historical films. I mean, certainly no one went to see Titanic not knowing that the ship sinks. But for the most part, historical pieces are meant to tell compelling stories about moments we’ve only read about in textbooks, if at all. That’s why so many of them are advertised as telling “the untold story.” But if you’re going to do that, you have to ask interesting questions and answer them. Was there a superior choice between AC and DC, and if so, in what respects? Is there a true hero/villain dynamic between Edison the inventor and Westinghouse the investor? What is the magnificent science behind all this that made Edison a celebrity? The film doesn’t answer any of these questions, and when those who don’t know the result get spoiled less than half an hour in, what reason do they have to stick around? The movie is robbed of anything resembling dramatic tension.
So with no stakes, the success of the film relies on the spectacle, which largely falls flat. For one, the trailers advertised this as a three-way battle between Edison, Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), when it most decidedly is not. This is just between Edison and Westinghouse, with Tesla briefly popping up as a wide-eyed optimist and futurist who is dismissed by one side and used as a pawn by the other. Right off the bat we’re lied to about who really factors into this so-called “war,” and because of that I felt cheated.
Stylistically, the movie plays largely like a superhero flick, with each character introduced by a glamour shot and a name font straight out of Suicide Squad. It also doesn’t help that our ostensible good guy, Edison, is largely assisted by a young man named Samuel Insull (who, along with William Randolph Hearst, was the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane) played by Tom Holland, so that our two heroes are literally Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, with the former affecting the same sarcastic drone he did in the Marvel movies. Throw in the copious amounts of CGI for both set design and mood-setting (lots and LOTS of lightning), and this is basically a comic book knockoff that had no business broaching such territory. It’s even more disturbing when you consider the irony of the fact that Scorsese has been highly critical of superhero films, and yet was an EP with final cut on this imitation of one.
The plot stretches out over the course of about a dozen years, which does the story no favors. The characters don’t age at all, it becomes impossible to keep up, and several moments of history that stretch across years are edited together to seem concurrent. The largest sin of this tactic is in the case of William Kellmer (Conor MacNeill). He’s essentially a footnote of history, as he was the first person executed via the electric chair. The film tries to make this a point of contention, as Edison is portrayed as never wanting to create anything that would kill a human being (like making weapons for the government), but also being unscrupulous enough to help steal Westinghouse’s technology and tell the state how to use it so he could label Westinghouse as a lethal product.
There is some truth in this. Westinghouse definitely sued to stop his stolen AC current from being used, and he failed in that endeavor; AC was used to put Kellmer to death. However, this whole thing serves basically as the B-plot from the second act on, intercut with the A-story of the two sides competing for contracts for the World’s Fair in Chicago, leading to the moment of triumph when the lights are turned on in the Windy City at the same instant Kellmer is fried in Auburn. The problem is, that Chicago Expo took place in 1893. Kellmer was executed in 1890. The film stretches out Kellmer’s appeal process, which has no intrigue and is just incredibly boring, three years longer than what would be accurate just for the dueling money shots of flipped switches bringing life and death simultaneously.
As for the performances, they’re adequate, but nothing entirely special. Cumberbatch gets the lion’s share of the good one-liners and comebacks, and his charm is undeniable. It’s also good to see Michael Shannon play a slightly more nuanced character instead of the slimy villains he seems to get more often than not these days (I can never see The Shape of Water again, and it’s only partly because a lady fucks a fish). But beyond that, there’s nothing much to recommend. Tom Holland seems prepubescent for the entire dozen years of the film, Nicholas Hoult is a great actor in a role where he doesn’t get to do anything except react to quips about how “Tesla” is a failed brand name, and the rest of the supporting cast barely registers at all, as forgettable as their DC Comics-inspired introductory name fonts.
I’ll grant that it certainly appears that Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has improved on his original shoddy product, and Rotten Tomatoes seems to agree (theatrical cut gets upgraded to 61%), but it’s still pretty shoddy, nonetheless. There are no stakes to the game, the idea of presenting this historical moment with a comic book motif is misplaced at best, and the performances are middling, with only the two leads (not three) looking like they’ve put in any real effort. If this was the original cut of the film, I’d probably give it a “D” or worse. But since this is by all accounts an improvement on the original (if nothing else than by the expunging of Harvey Weinstein’s presence), I’ll be generous and grade on a slight curve.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What historical moment would you like to see adapted for the big screen? Did Elon Musk pay to have Tesla in this movie just for the name drop? Let me know?