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The Current War - Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla on the Big Screen!

The Current War is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. It stars Michael Shannon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, but is just now getting wide release in the form of a “Director’s Cut” version.

Late in the 19th century, inventors Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse find themselves competing to provide safe and efficient electricity to the masses, giving cities and towns around America electric light, which will prove a safer alternative to gas lamps. Elsewhere, Nikola Tesla, an immigrant with big ideas who’d previously been let go from Edison’s employment, seeks to utilize and create his own inventions. All their work will culminate at the 1983 World’s Fair in Chicago, where they’ll have a chance to show their creations to the largest audience imaginable.

The story behind the birth of modern electricity and lighting is certainly a more interesting one than one might be lead to believe, although The Current War is a hit-and-miss affair in many regards. The movie is superbly cast, with its starring quartet all putting on fantastic performances, further benefited by period details and setpieces. However, the film tries to cram too much information into an all-too-brief 107-mintue running time, and the questionable cinematography belongs in a different movie.

One can’t argue with the casting here. In particular, the always-entertaining Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, Doctor Strange) steals the show as Thomas Edison, a man who wants to stick to his principles and deliver affordable and safe electricity, but finds himself at odds with many personal moral decisions and the like, and who has an unshakable bond with his employee, Samuel Insull, played by Tom Holland (Spider-Man Homecoming). With Insull serving as something of a moral compass, the scenes and conversations between these two make for some of the movie’s best moments.

Not to be outdone is Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, The Shape of Water) as competing energy man George Westinghouse. I give the movie credit for not simply painting him as a “heartless antagonist,” as he must deal with his own struggles and relationships in the titular current war. By comparison, the elements of Nikola Tesla, played by Nicholas Hoult (Dark Phoenix, Tolkien) feel shafted and tertiary, which is a shame given the strength of Hoult’s performance.

It’s a fantastic looking film with its 19th century environments, period clothing, technology, and the like. The movie looks great, and coupled with the solid choice of lead actors, it’s quite superb from a production and casting point of view.

Unfortunately, other elements don’t fare as well. The movie tries to cram way too much into a limited running time. By stripping down the conflict to the competition between Westinghouse and Edison, it could have been a much more concise and “to the point” film. As is, even things like Edison’s relationship with his wife and kids feel like afterthoughts, which is disappointing to say the least. Likewise, Nikola Tesla gets sidelined, and his scenes feel shoe-horned into the movie. It should have been an Edison/Westinghouse movie and a separate movie on Tesla’s life; not a half-assed compromise that tried to cram it all into one film.

The other disappointment is the bizarre cinematography. It seems like whoever shot this movie was bored, and tried to get creative. Dutch angles are widely used in scenes that don’t call for them (I honestly had to check IMDb to make sure they didn’t get the guy from Battlefield Earth!) and plenty of other bizarre angles, shots, and zooms are used. This stuff may belong in a surreal avant-garde art film, but not in a biopic/true story of the developers of modern electricity.

It’s hard to rate The Current War, since some parts are handled so well, and others are handled so poorly. The casting, acting, and period detail are all great, but the attempt to cram too much into a single film backfires, and the often bizarre cinematography decisions ultimately hurt the film. I wouldn’t rush to the theater to see this one, but it’ll make for decent rental material when the home release comes.

Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

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