In his new historical drama The Current War, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) charts the destructive rivalry between inventors Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) as they battle it out to see whose electrical system will illuminate America.
The film which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2017, with the aim of being distributed by The Weinstein Company two months later, was eventually shelved and then sold off after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. Since then, conscious of its lukewarm reception at TIFF and the chaos surrounding its release, Gomez-Rejon is said to have added five additional scenes and trimmed ten minutes from the production’s runtime in the hope of improving its chances at the box-office.
It’s the late 1800s and genius inventor Thomas Edison is locked into a battle of wits with amiable entrepreneur George Westinghouse. Having conquered the locomotive industry a few years earlier when he invented the railway air brake, Westinghouse has now set his eyes onto the next big thing, a new electricity system to rival Edison’s direct current. Things come to a head when, in a fit of blind vengeance, Edison decides that playing dirty is the only way to defeat the competition.
Meanwhile, having been hired and then later fired by Edison for daring to contradict him, innovative Serbo-Croat inventor Nikola Tesla is offered a chance by Westinghouse to develop his own idea and once and for all put an end to what he sees as destructive rivalry between him and an increasingly paranoid Edison.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Michael Mitnick (writer on the HBO TV series Vinyl) present an ambitiously stylish portrayal of a relentless power struggle between three of the most extraordinary minds in the history of science. The film is however let down very early on by its inability to stick to one tone.
Opting for style over substance, Gomez-Rejon presents a narrative which is, perhaps, too rigidly episodic and stagey to fully convince as a historical drama. Having said that, there is no denying that the director’s own aesthetic vision goes a long way into giving The Current War a little more credibility than your average biopic.
Cumberbatch, Shannon and Hoult give three great performances, while Spider-Man star and Cumberbatch’s Marvel cast-mate Tom Holland impresses in the role of Samuel Insull, Edison’s resourceful young assistant. Elsewhere, Tuppence Middleton gives a beautifully understated performance as the tragic Mary Edison.
Overall, The Current War is a robustly acted, if slightly muddled historical drama which could have benefited greatly from a stronger narrative direction. Far from perfect, but still manages to offer an interesting twist on a story many wouldn’t have been aware of.