'The Current War: Director's Cut' Review: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Historical Drama Gets A Second Chance

The Current War had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2017. The reaction from the audience in attendance: considerably mixed, bordering on mostly negative. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon understood where this was coming from: he wasn't happy with the film, either. The filmmaker had been rushed to finish the film in time for TIFF and delivered a cut he was unhappy with. The urging for the rush job came from the film's producer: Harvey Weinstein. After the TIFF screening, Weinstein, as was his habit, recut the film himself – a development that only made Gomez-Rejon more miserable.

And then everything came crashing down: numerous sexual misconduct accusations against Weinstein came to light, The Weinstein Company imploded, and The Current War was pulled from its November 2017 release. Now, the film about the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) is finally being released with a cut approved by Gomez-Rejon – a cut that uses a new score, adds a few new scenes, and presents a much tidier narrative. After all this time, will The Current War spark – or flicker out and go dark?

First thing's first: I was one of the people who saw the TIFF cut back in 2017, and I was also one of the few critics to give that cut a mixed-to-positive reviewThe Current War didn't knock my socks off, but it was a handsomely crafted drama featuring strong performances and a unique visual style. But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon didn't share that opinion.

"I knew in my heart, and every fiber of my body was saying, it's not ready," he said in an interview. "I was drowning in notes, to the point I was addressing them more than editing the film. I'd get them from London, and then more from New York. We rushed the mix, ADR, sound...I was completely shattered by one screening I knew I wasn't ready for."

Time – and a little help from executive producer Martin Scorsese – gave Gomez-Rejon and The Current War a second chance. The director was able to have one day of reshoots and re-edit the film to his liking. So, is it a completely different movie now? Not exactly. The Current War: Director's Cut plays similarly to the cut that screened at TIFF. The story is the same, unfolding in the same manner. But there's a little more energy here. Things feel tighter without being overly condensed. And the two main characters at the center of the drama are given a little more room to breathe and develop.

Inspired by true events, The Current War follows the battle that raged between inventor Thomas Edison and entrepreneur George Westinghouse. After the testy Edison blows off a dinner arrangement with the entrepreneur, the wealthy Westinghouse concocts a plan to get the inventor's attention. Edison is on the verge of electrifying the country with his Direct Current (DC), which has a limited range. Westinghouse, meanwhile, knows that Alternating Current (AC) is much more powerful and cost-effective. His initial plan is to spark a partnership with Edison, but this backfires – Edison is too prideful and too competitive. Thus the two men engage in a battle for electrical supremacy, with Westinghouse insisting his system is better and Edison insisting AC is deadly and dangerous.

This gives Benedict Cumberbatch the chance to play yet another brilliant jerk – it's the type of role he can play in his sleep. The relationship between Edison and his sickly wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) has more focus in this cut – but not by much. It's hard not to paint Edison as the villain of this story, especially since Shannon's Westinghouse seems so incredibly well-mannered and polite. If The Current War is more of the same for Cumberbatch, it's a nice change of pace for Shannon. The intense actor tends to specialize in intense roles, often portraying simmering lunatics on the verge of lashing out. Here, he's calm and kind, and the far more sympathetic of the two men. Especially when Edison starts deliberately killing animals with AC to prove his point, and goes so far as to help design the first electric chair.

Rather than settle for a standard historical costume drama vibe, Gomez-Rejon gets creative, creating rich, fluid scenes where the camera glides about or pulls back to reveal large cutaways showcasing the bowels of the earth below. It's stylish and lively and keeps The Current War cooking. The film almost never slows down, which makes for an altogether entertaining saga but also doesn't give the story the attention it might deserve. When Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) pops up. we expect him to play some sort of major part in this drama, but after a grand entrance, he mostly recedes into the background, a victim of the movie's breakneck pacing.

The speedy pace also results in Gomez-Rejon not having faith in his audience on several occasions. It's as if the filmmaker, worried that the movie is going by too quickly, needs to stop and quickly point out obvious details for fear we might miss them. Case in point: the first half-hour of the movie is overloaded with title cards. We're talking painfully obvious title cards, too. When an establishing shot of the White House appears it's accompanied by the title card THE WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON D.C. And whenever a new character pops up, they, too, get a title card announcing who they are and what they do. This becomes particularly egregious when Tom Holland's Samuel Insull first appears. Insull is shown with a title card reading SAMUEL INSULL, EDISON'S PERSONAL SECRETARY. Less than a minute later, the character introduces himself to someone else by saying, "I'm Samuel Insull, Mr. Edison's personal secretary." Did we really need the title card if he was just going to tell us the same exact thing thirty seconds later?

These noticeable missteps aside, The Current War deserves its second chance, and it deserves to find an audience, however small that audience may be. It's still not the show-stopping saga it could've been, but it remains a well-crafted and stylish story about two men hell-bent on proving themselves right at any cost. Much like the two figures in his film, Gomez-Rejon refused to give up on his invention.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10