“The Current War,” had all the elements needed to be a captivating period drama, including a star-studded cast and a fascinating storyline about one of the most influential, yet rarely discussed, periods in history.
Unfortunately, the film was plagued with production problems, and it shows. The result is, sadly, a rather disjointed mess, with flashes of brilliance that get lost in a slog of underdeveloped vignettes.
“The Current War” attempts to tell the story of Thomas Edison’s “war of the currents” with George Westinghouse. The electricity titans fight city-by-city to light America, with Edison promoting his DC current and Westinghouse, who eventually joins forced with Nicola Tesla, promoting an AC current. The war culminates in one final battle to win a bid and light the Chicago World’s Fair.
Harvey Weinstein served as executive producer for the film (which was made in 2017) and it was pulled from release when the sexual assault allegations made against him went public. After being pulled, it was resold to another company, and the director added five additional scenes and cut the runtime. This series of setbacks may be what makes the film so disjointed.
We are presented with two powerful and enigmatic figures, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), played by talented actors, but neither is fully explored in the time given. The film chooses instead to flicker its focus between various other interesting figures, all of whom are once again underdeveloped. The eccentric Nicola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) seems to pop in and out, capturing our attention for a few moments before disappearing again. Edison’s assistant, Samuel (Tom Holland), is given undue time when he doesn’t seem to serve much purpose at all.
We are briefly given an insight into Edison’s wife (Katherine Waterston), and how her tragic death impacted her husband, but once again thissub plot seems to be forgotten as the film rambles on to another topic. J.P Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) is seen on the phone and in a room with both electricity titans now and again, but the influence of one of the world’s most powerful financiers seems to be rather underplayed. The result feels like a montage of Oscar-baity scenes poorly stitched together.
The film severely lacks direction, as we are presented with four main arcs that don’t fit together well - Edison and Westinghouse’s personal rivalry and individual characters; Edison’s insistence that AC current is dangerous and deadly; Tesla’s fight to be taken seriously despite being a Serbian immigrant; and Edison’s unwilling implication in the first use of the electric chair. All of these plots could have been interesting, but the film’s inability to properly weave the threads together means that too much is covered in too little time, and nothing is explored in depth. Even the choice of actors and setting seem disjointed - this is a distinctly American story, but the cast is almost entirely British and the film feels like an English-period drama.
All that was really needed to make this a great movie was an examination into the characters of Westinghouse and Edison - the acting ability of Cumberbatch and Shannon could have carried the film and made it far more compelling.
The war of the currents laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution, and the modern world in which we live. Without it, we would not have electricity in our homes, our factories, or our streets. Yet, this electrifying tale is reduced to something rather yawn-inducing, with slow pacing that drags on far too long. It’s honestly a shame, because “The Current War” had so much potential, but it falls flat.