Movie Review: The Current War

The Current War, The Director’s Cut, a strange 2017 movie, finally debuted this fall. It had been languishing in the aftermath of the Me, Too movement that annihilated the movie studio that made The Current War.

The newly released movie, produced by an uncredited Harvey Weinstein (The King’s Speech) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) among many others, features Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) as George Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla and Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) as Thomas Edison. This should be an amazing movie.

But it isn’t and, after everything but the kitchen sink was hurled at this movie regardless of merit and through no fault of its own, one can only hazard a guess as to why it is not as good as it might have been.

The Current War is not amazing. It’s barely interesting, though it is interesting — how could it not be, given its subject? — and it gets better as it goes along. 

Beginning with the sound of winter’s wind as a blindingly white snowstorm engulfs one man in black, depicting a world in white and black in desperate need of color and light, The Current War comes up with a fast and dizzying array of scenes that zip and do not linger. But it becomes clear without proper exposition that Edison in 1880 has arrived “to give light” with a patent application. 

Details are hard to make out. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, working with playwright Michael Mitnick’s screenplay, opted for a hurried first half for reasons that remain unclear. The Current War, which essentially depicts electricity competition within a 13-year span when America had the closest the world’s ever known to having a purely capitalist economy — that is, with some statism but without near-total government control of economics, such as anti-trust law, an income tax, Social Security, Medicare, ObamaCare and control of utilities as monopolies — morphs from man to man contest over electrical currents into a more benign account of both mens’ characters. Like The Founder, The Current War can’t decide where it stands on the morality of a capitalist, let alone capitalism.

Ultimately, it sort of apologizes for their supposed excesses and ruthlessness in the subsidiary character Hoult portrays, Nikola Tesla, whose academic presentation to a small gathering at Columbia College on May 20, 1891 marks a turning point. Immigrant Tesla as the eccentric futurist fits Texas native Gomez-Rejon’s and Pittsburgher Mitnick’s theme that capitalists can do good and bad alike, so the notion which emerges is that capitalism represents both the potential for promoting life and hastening death; it could make peace or it could start war.

This undeveloped theme has certain possibilities, largely unrealized here. By the time the film’s climax comes to Chicago for each capitalist’s presentation to the cronies that control the Columbian Exposition of 1893, both men have compromised themselves to a certain degree, though, arguably, Westinghouse comes off as more principled. The best line of this historically based movie, which plays with the lights and probably the facts a bit too much, is when a question is put to Tesla after he proposes a new idea: “Are you serious?” Tesla deadpans: “Almost always.” 

The Current War might’ve been grand. Shannon and Cumberbatch are in fine form as always. Hoult is very good as Tesla. There are glimpses of a vision. But it moves too fast, shows too little and emits the quality of one of those non-fiction programs on a cable channel that dramatizes historical reenactments. Diehard fans of Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and members of the cast and crew may find something here to appreciate and enjoy. But there’s not enough of a driving sense of purpose to power The Current War.