current war tiff

The last thing cinema needs right now is another movie about a brilliant man whose brilliance is expressed through being a stubborn jerk. We already have a wealth of these artist as needlessly mean, antisocial guy portraits, and to keep adding more at this point goes well beyond beating a dead horse.

But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon manages to get some great milage by taking such a setup and approaching it through a deconstructed lense with The Current War. The brilliant jerk in question this time is none other than the Wizard of Menlo Park himself, Thomas Edison. Edison, that brilliant inventor and sometimes thief, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who has made almost an entire career playing brilliant jerks. It’s typecasting to the nth degree, but it also works. Cumberbatch brings an amusing, detached air to Edison, playing the genius as an overly competitive, short-tempered savant who wants to slap his name on everything.

As The Current War opens, “the world is still lit by fire”, as a helpful title card informs us. Edison is about to change all that with his famous lightbulbs and his soon-to-be-famous direct current. With money provided by J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), Edison is able to electrify New York and set in motion a plan to light up the entire country.

This is potentially bad news for George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). Westinghouse has interests in the gas that people have been using for lamps to light their homes, and Edison electrifying the land could put him out of business. But Westinghouse is a practical man; he decides that if he can’t beat Edison, why not join him? His plan is to electrify a town on his own, using alternating current instead of direct. Westinghouse assumes that Edison will be practical and want to merge interests when he sees what Westinghouse can do. But Edison is not a practical man. He sees Westinghouse’s move as a slight, and a battle over electricity begins.

This scenario has all the makings of your standard biopic melodrama, but The Current War takes a different path. The screenplay by Michael Mitnick is surprisingly funny, giving all the actors – Shannon in particular – ample opportunity for dry humor. Mitnick’s script also keeps changing the narrative, introducing new characters and subplots that broaden the scope of the story, giving us a portrait not just of Edison and Westinghouse but also the world and society they existed in. The script also introduces inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who briefly works for Edison before striking out on his own after Edison fails to truly realize his brilliance. 

The Current War initially seems like it’ll be something of a hagiography of Edison. Early scenes feature Edison lovingly interacting with his wife (Tuppence Middleton) and children. But then Edison stands-up a polite dinner offer from Westinghouse, and little by little the film reveals what an unpleasant, manipulative creep the great inventor can be. Edison feeds the newspapers negative press about Westinghouse’s alternating current, claiming that it’s dangerous and lethal. When no one buys it, Edison takes things to the next level and begins using alternating current to electrocute animals to death.

These animal executions lead government representatives to come to Edison to help them build a more humane form of capital punishment. Edison refuses at first, but when he realizes he can turn this situation into more negative press for Westinghouse, he changes his mind.

Shannon plays Westinghouse as a good man who can’t make sense of Edison’s motives. Gomez-Rejon uses a neat trick to set-up how sharp Westinghouse is, giving us our first glance at him at a party where he’s introduced to a room full of people and easily remembers all of their names at once. It will likely not surprise anyone to learn that Shannon gives the film’s best performance, bringing a warmth and humanity but also a deep drive to succeed to the character.

Cumberbatch is good, too, although at this point he can play this type of character in his sleep. Still, it’s fun to watch the actor sink his teeth into the part. Katherine Waterston is sadly underused as Westinghouse’s supportive wife Marguerite . To the film’s credit, it keeps trying to inject Marguerite into the story rather than sideline her, but there’s never enough for her to do. The same can be said for Hoult’s Tesla, who is introduced early in the film and set-up to be a major player, but mostly recedes into the background. 

Gomez-Rejon injects The Current War with a crackling visual style, full of frame-filling close-ups, cross-sectional shots inside buildings, rotating camera shots and more. The film never really sits still, which greatly improves the overall experience. Some of the most visually successful moments come when people are being introduced to electric light for the first time in their lives – something we consider utterly mundane now is given an air of magic. All of this comes courtesy of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who also shot the recent It. On top of it all is a killer, electronic-based score from Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran.

The Current War may not break new ground, but it finds exciting ways to make the old seem new. It runs out of steam near the end, beginning to lag and continuing on well past a scene that would’ve made for a perfect ending. But this is an inventive film about inventors. “There’s a way to do it better – find it,” Edison said. The Current War finds a (mostly) better way to tell a familiar story.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a writer who frowns a lot. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, /Film, Mashable, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413