The Current War was directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from a script by Michael Mitnick and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, and Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla. During the late 1880’s, just after Thomas Edison invents the lightbulb, Shannon’s Westinghouse takes notice of the current Edison is using to power his bulbs, a current which can only travel a distance of one mile at a time; after Edison fails to show up for a dinner at the Westinghouse’s invitation, the industrialist decides to take matters into his own hands, using what we know now as the AC/DC current (the one that runs through transformers), which can travel across thousands of miles at once. During this time, Nikola Tesla is under Edison’s employ, but after Edison fails to hear his ideas, Tesla quits, going out on his own to blaze a new trail as a futurist (though without the resources to bring that future to light). It’s a race to the finish after this to see whether Edison or Westinghouse has the better current, with Edison accusing Westinghouse of developing one with lethal capabilities (something which inadvertently invents the electric chair); as Edison puts it, “the man who controls that current controls the world,” and with the future on the line, these three titans of industry are willing to risk it all to win this war of lights. The film also stars Tom Holland, Kathrine Waterson, Tuppence Middleton, and Matthew Macfayden.
This film has had a rough life up to now, as anyone following its production would be able to tell you. The first trailer was released almost two and a half years ago, with the film due to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, but while it did make its festival debut (and was almost universally panned by critics thereafter), it was never released to the public, instead becoming an unwitting victim of the Weinstein fallout, buried by the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and his ultimate fall from grace that formed the beginnings of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Stories would later come out about the production of the film itself, stating that Weinstein was a huge bully on set and refused to let the director execute his ideas the way he originally envisioned them, exacting an almost dictator-like level of control over the production. The result spoke for itself, as the original cut was fraught with pacing issues, piss-poor editing, lack of focus, garish cinematography, and historical inaccuracies so large they made Braveheart look like the poster child for factual storytelling. Due to the prevalence and danger of being too close to the Weinstein scandal, the film was subsequently delayed for an entire two years, now with an October 2019 release date, and has been released to theaters as of yesterday under the title of The Current War: Director’s Cut, which reports say is closer to the film Gomez-Rejon wanted to make in the first place, though still noticeably marred by Weinstein’s involvement. Unfortunately, that involvement, it seems, had too much impact on the project for any re-cut version to save it, even from its own director.
The Current War is, to put it simply, not a very good movie. It’s not exactly an outright failure of epic proportions like the original cut was purported to be, but if this is a significant improvement over that original version, I can’t imagine how bad that really must have been, especially for audiences who screened the film at TIFF. The second half does have a much better sense of flow and the pacing has been cleaned up quite a bit, but the editing, cinematography, and lack of focus up to that latter half of the film is almost as poor as it was before, save for some scenes being re-arranged and a few others now feeling a little bit more polished. The trouble is the story the film is meant to be telling is marketed as if three inventors are facing off by creating the electrified America and battling for control over that creation, but the actual film plays out more like a long-term two-way rivalry between Westinghouse and Edison just trying to get funding for their projects, while Tesla is merely a bi-product of the story because he happened to be around at the time. In fact, one could venture as far as to remove Tesla’s entire story from this film, and it would be virtually no different other than having to find someone else for Edison to yell at. Th editing doesn’t help, either, with many scenes seemingly dropped in random places, others ending too soon so that we never get a sense of the passage of time, some beginning to early, and all put together with so. many. cuts, you could swear the production just borrowed John Ottman from Bohemian Rhapsody and asked him to do the same thing with this film.
The cinematography is also so random and lacking of purpose that only a few scenes in the first half were even bearable to sit through; bad editing is bad enough, but combined with shot selections that don’t seem to have any sense of cohesion or anything to say about whatever is in or around the frame makes the entire (remember, improved) first half borderline unwatchable. Both of these elements calm down significantly in the latter half, but by then, the damage has been done, so the film actually feels like two different projects smashed together, if not one project that only figured out what it wanted to be halfway through. The amount of dutch tilts and uncomfortable close-ups that seem to have no purpose could rival the films of Danny Boyle or Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, but even those pictures had better editing and pacing than this film.
What’s most disappointing, though, about the project is how it wastes such incredible talents as its three leads – sorry, two leads and a glorified supporting role. The film is stacked with talent top to bottom, but with an unfocused script, they don’t actually get to do much of anything. Cumberbatch and Shannon do their best to keep the film afloat, and it’s only because of them that it’s (for the most part) watchable, but Nicholas Hoult really is just relegated to being there because Tesla happened to be around, and Tom Holland has to saddle the thankless task of acting next to Cumberbatch (which he does admirably) without much of anything to act on. Matthew Macfayden gets more screen-time than one might expect as J.P. Morgan (from whom Edison and Westinghouse are attempting to secure funding), but even his role could have been entirely cut out and nothing would have changed. And that is all to say nothing of how the film completely wastes Tuppence Middleton and Kathrine Waterson, its only two significant female characters, the earlier of which is basically given nothing before her character’s death, which is only used as motivation for Edison inventing the film projector. Beyond that, neither Mary Edison nor Marguerite Westinghouse seemed to matter to the script at all.
Like I said, I didn’t completely hate this movie, but despite some noticeable improvements having been made since the project’s original inception, I still can’t quite count it as one that I would recommend, and it’s disappointing to have to say that about a film that was only delayed because a rapist decided not to let its director tell the story he wanted to tell. The two leads are good in their respective roles, but those roles are so shallow that it doesn’t seem the film would have seen the light of day if not for their star power, and Nicolas Hoult is almost entirely wasted. Even with a better second half than first, The Current War: Director’s Cut remains one of the most disappointing films of 2019.
I’m giving “The Current War” (Director’s Cut) a 4.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.