That Nikola Tesla and not Thomas Edison is the true hero of the age of invention has become a readymade hot take. Nevertheless, it’s closer to the truth than the myth about transcendent Edisonian genius that was lodged in the popular American consciousness for four generations. Undeterred by this shift in the cultural understanding of the invention age, however, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War falls back on the myth of modernity being born in the laps of practical, native-born American ingenuity. History’s Great Men, the film suggests, may have been flawed, arrogant, and even ethically compromised, but their position at the center of our understanding of the past is essentially justified.
The film takes as its subject the competition in the 1880s and ’90s between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), already a renowned celebrity inventor after the one-two punch of the lightbulb and the phonograph, and industrialist George Westinghouse (a mustachioed, clenched-jawed Michael Shannon) over the construction of electric grids in the United States. While the famous but cash-strapped Edison prefers his own direct-current system of electricity, the industry captain Westinghouse founds his electric company on the more efficient alternating current. On Westinghouse’s side but initially working for Edison is the Serbian-born Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), whose appearances in the film are sporadic, as the brilliant mind most famous for being sidelined by history ends up pushed to the margins of the film as well.
Early in The Current War, Westinghouse, rationally interested in investing in the best options for electricity, wants to meet with Edison, but the arrogant inventor blows the powerful magnate off. This slight is the origin of a decade’s worth of bad blood between the pair, and though the two don’t share a scene until the end of the film, Gomez-Rejon cuts between their respective milieus, a structure of rapid intercutting that both attempts to give The Current War a sense of urgency and sets up a contrast between the men’s respective worlds. While Westinghouse negotiates with officials and fellow capitalists in refined haute bourgeois settings, Edison manipulates the press from his workshop, claiming that alternating current is inherently more dangerous than direct current—a bald-faced lie, of course.
On hand as witness to Edison’s decline into mendacious self-promotion is fresh-faced Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), the Bob Cratchet to Edison’s Scrooge. The latter’s cynical turn appears to be motivated by the sudden illness and death of his wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton), a series of events that the film rushes through so quickly that by the end the viewer might be forgiven for forgetting that Edison even had a wife. The reserved Westinghouse certainly comes off as the better man, invested in providing wiring the country up out of the goodness of his stoic but kind heart—and to atone for past sins. We gradually learn that Westinghouse’s moral drive is rooted in a traumatic Civil War experience, revealed in hazy, fragmented flashbacks. However, these eventually culminate with a bit of a narrative dud, an event that doesn’t possess the revelatory power it would need to make the film’s version of Westinghouse more than a flat caricature of taciturn 19th-century masculinity.
The Current War is Edison’s film. While Westinghouse busies himself making stern nods at fancy dining tables and ruefully contemplating his war experience, Edison gets something closer to a character arc, and all the moments of emotional extremity. Cumberbatch seizes the opportunity to throw himself into the film’s passionate rants, shouting Edison’s maniacal determination to best Westinghouse as he watches red bulbs fill up the illuminated map he’s rigged to track the contracts the respective companies have been awarded. And at the other extreme, Cumberbatch settles into cool, sociopathic obsession for The Current War’s dispassionate moral compromises, as Edison clandestinely designs an alternating-current electric chair while Westinghouse is busy making stern nods at fancy dining tables. It’s as hammy a performance as one might expect from a historical drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch and gunning of Oscar glory: plenty of bluster, plenty of grimacing, and, given the actor’s still sometimes shaky American accent, plenty of excessively rhotic r’s.
The film’s focus on the darker aspects of Edison’s character ultimately serves to ballast, rather than detract from, the myth of the great American inventor. He still figures in The Current War as a flawed genius who pursues invention for its own sake, against the capitalist tides. The film’s version of Edison finds an antagonist in financier and banker J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), who forces the inventor out of his own company and retitles it General Electricity. Thereafter freed from the onus of his own out-of-control ambition, Edison gets back to the real work of inventing, single-handedly developing the movies themselves—more than a bit of an historical exaggeration on the part of Michael Mitnick’s screenplay, and one that serves to re-center the flourishing of technological innovation in the late 19th century around Edison.
In the end, the film doesn’t so much hold Edison’s legacy under a microscope as it does his face under a wide-angle lens. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung here strictly to the Tom Hooper school of period pieces, which dictates that visual interest is directly proportional to how many frame-edge distortions and off-center compositions appear in a given scene. Throughout, The Current War almost seems self-conscious that we might find the wheeling and dealing of capitalist competition dull, so an incessantly driving score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka is laid under every conversation, every stride through a hallway, every minor workshop incident. The nonstop pace of the music and editing, a structure that never settles down for moments of true stillness, and the undermotivated use of distorting camera lenses gives the film a flat, monotonous quality, like the persistent buzz of a faulty electrical circuit.
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