“The Current War’ is about the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to wire American cities for electricity in the late 19th century. Edison wanted to use his invention, direct current, while Westinghouse preferred his, alternating current.
Edison is portrayed as a man full of ideas, desperate and willing to do anything to ensure that only he succeed, even if that meant exploiting the press to get them to write lies about Westinghouse. While simultaneously developing his DC delivery system and incorporating Edison Electric (which became General Electric), we also see him working on his early recording device, the Gramophone, and the first motion picture camera and projector, as well as frequent arguments with his financier, JP Morgan.
Meanwhile, Westinghouse — who himself received more than 100 patents — was signing up more municipalities to use his electricity delivery system with the help of the young genius Nikola Tesla. It all came to a head at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, but there’s really not that much tension about who won the war, because we know that every time we put a plug in the wall today, we’re using AC, not DC.
As the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon are just as good as you’d want them to be. Unfortunately, the movie tries to squeeze in side stories about the mens’ wives, including an illness that finally takes Mary Edison. The parts are underwritten to the point they serve as a mere distraction from the main plot. But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung deserve credit for framing (and lighting!) scenes beautifully, commanding our attention even when the underlying story doesn’t.
The official title of this movie is “The Current War: Director’s Cut,” because it was originally set to be released two years ago, just as the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault accusations came to the fore. Not wanting it to be buried under the bad news, the producers made a deal with another studio, which re-edited and re-shot portions before a full release this fall.
There’s nothing horrible here, but not enough to make it worth a recommendation, either. The history of the two men would have been better told as an episode of the PBS series “American Masters” or “Nova.”
I give “The Current War” a 5 out of 10.