AC or DC? That is the question that faced America in the late 1800s, as state-by-state the country hooked up to the new technology that was lighting up cities: electricity. Perhaps not as dramatic a historical decision as say, signing the Declaration of Independence, but with every other moment in history getting a film (or mini-series) or two (or five), the so-called ‘war of the currents’ had to get its day sooner or later.
Originally scheduled for a 2017 release, The Current War, originally a Weinstein Company property, had the misfortune of getting caught up in the sexual harassment scandal that brought the company down, leaving it in distribution limbo until the company’s bankruptcy proceedings were in order. Almost two years after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, it finally arrives in cinemas to what will likely be an underwhelming response.
Set in late nineteenth century America, The Current War tells the true story of the competition between Thomas Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to see whose electrical system would light up the United States. Westinghouse favoured risky alternating current, while Edison preferred lies, hypocrisy and fearmongering. Oh, and direct current. The premise doesn’t promise the most thrilling of tales, and while writer Michael Mitnick manages to pull a mildly engaging narrative out of a piece of history that could hardly be called cinematic, the film never manages to place itself above so many other middle-of-the-road historical movies that appear each year and are forgotten by the next.
Perhaps one reason for this is that the script struggles with how to represent Edison himself. It’s clear from the narratively pointless Dead Wife story that the filmmakers want the audience to sympathise with him, but he spends so much of his screentime being an irredeemable arsehole that any good feeling generated by the few sweet family moments evaporate within minutes. It’s clear the film wants to present Edison as the troubled-genius-bad-with-people-workaholic type that appears in so many biopics of supposed male geniuses, but this approach only works when the protagonist a) has undisputed talent, and b) is fighting against a person/organisation/system that is more objectionable to the audience. Instead, The Current War pits its clearly unlikeable protagonist against two men (Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, played by Nicholas Hoult) who are both cleverer than him and also happen to be decent people. In comparison, Edison just looks like a dick – so why should we care about him? While the unconvincing reconciliation between Edison and Westinghouse at the end displays an unsubtle expectation that the audience should respect and admire both men, given the previous ninety minutes it seems impossible not to root for Westinghouse and Tesla to succeed and for Edison to meet a ruin proportional to his unending unpleasantness.
The flawed script is not helped by cumbersome direction that tries too hard to be stylish at the expense of the narrative. For much of the opening half hour, the constantly roving camera thwarts any kind of earnest attempt on the part of the audience to engage in the story. Performances are fine, as one would expect from actors of this calibre given such mediocre material. A particular highlight is Hoult’s charmingly eccentric Tesla, terribly underused considering he is undoubtedly the film’s best character.
The film’s conciliatory ending sees Edison using his film camera to film Niagara Falls, the centre of Westinghouse and Tesla’s plan for generating hydroelectric energy, symbolically linking the warring inventors through their different inventions. The only problem is, unlike the film implies, Edison did not invent the motion picture camera. That honour belongs to Frenchman Louis Le Prince, and even Edison’s own “Kinetograph” was largely the work of his employee William Kennedy Dickson.
Neither clear on what it wants to say about its famous protagonist nor brave enough to shift the focus onto a lesser-known character such as Westinghouse (or indeed, Tesla, the most interesting of the film’s three inventors), The Current War is an unfocused biopic that never really finds its spark.
The Current War opens in UK cinemas on 26th April 2019.