The Current War:  Director's Cut

 

            This is a story of 3 geniuses who were contemporaries, and their amazing contributions literally changed the way we all live.  And yet their interaction with each other is sullied with pettiness and bitter rivalry.

            It's American in the 1880's.  We're past the Civil War, the Industrial Age has blossomed into huge productivity, and large personal fortunes.  Bell's telephone is already in wide usage, and now the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, an Englishman), invents the light bulb (or he refines the one patented ten years earlier, whichever version of history you prefer).  He's an instant celebrity, but now the trick is getting electricity into wide usage.  Enter businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who's convinced that Edison's insistence on Direct Current will limit his product.  So he applies Alternating Current, which Edison claims is dangerous to people.  This version of Edison portrays him as someone who does not want anyone harmed by his electricity, and he even does experiments on animals to prove that Alternating Current can kill (yes, this was before P.E.T.A., founded a century later).  Ironically, the State of New York then decides that using electricity would be a “more humane” way of executing criminals than hanging, and develops the first electric chair.  Double irony:  Edison agrees to act as consultant, and when that information becomes public, against his wishes, he appears not to be the man of principle that he presents himself to be.  Well, he wouldn't be the first misunderstood genius.

            Enter Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult, also an Englishman), a Serb immigrant, who at first worked for Edison, but felt his creative genius wasn't utilized (or compensated) properly, so he went to Westinghouse, and developed with him a way to apply electricity (specifically, Alternating Current) to motors.  It was Tesla's idea that a machine could be built along Niagara Falls to harness the energy of the enormous waterfall into electricity.  He, of course, was right.  But by this time the intellectually restless Edison is already working on developing the phonograph, and, eventually, a motion picture.  When he died, all of American turned off their lights for a minute in tribute.  Westinghouse made a fortune.  Tesla died a pauper.

            Though Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon presents us with the period costumes and the realistic-looking sets, there's an old-film jerkiness to the screenplay that disrupts the flow of the story.  Yes, we get that the three geniuses were rivals.  But throwing in financier J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen, also an Englishman) takes away from the focus, as does adding Edison's wife (Tuppence Middleton, also English), who doesn't advance the story, either.  Cumberbatch's Edison plays like an arrogant recluse who patronizes everyone except his personal assistant, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland, also an Englishman).  And what's with casting all these British people to play American icons?

            This is a story of 3 geniuses.  Though the characters are certainly of historical interest, they aren't very winsome, or charming.  The personalities presented here make it difficult for us to emotionally connect with them, which is a shame, because their pioneering work still touches us all.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association

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