The Current War: Director's Cut
The Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017 sent shockwaves around Hollywood as well as the world. The allegations proved so condemning in the public eye that the Weinstein Company production company was liquidated, and its library sold off – the majority went to new production company Lantern Productions. However, the Weinstein Company being shuttered meant that many films that had been completed, but not released yet, were left in limbo. As a result, the biopic about the power-supply competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse went from having a fall 2017 release, to a fall 2019 release.
The Current War: Director’s Cut (2019) maps the aftermath of the invention of the incandescent lightbulb. Thomas Alva Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) in 1880, is beginning his plans to power American cities, starting with New York. However, Pittsburg industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who made his fortune on train breaks, sees an opportunity to make a cheaper and more potent powering system. As a result, Westinghouse begins to offer a competitive alternative to Edison’s option, with the caveat that its potency has a life-threatening risk. The film also maps the gliding of Serbian futurist Nicolas Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) into the current competition.
The film is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who had his breakout with the Sundance darling Me, Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), but whose career has been delayed along with this film’s release. He’s resorted to maintain a living by directing in TV, but his skill-set demanded bigger projects. With The Current War, he’s had the freedom to recut the film to his heart’s content (therefore differentiating it from any version Weinstein may have produced); the result is a very high-octane pace, which is a benefit as much as a hindrance.
The high pace of the film helps lend a sense of urgency to the tone, which makes the technical conversations and negotiations all the more exciting. However, the film does rely a lot on the perceptivity of its viewers, and even textual information and symbolism splashed on-screen isn’t enough to keep things structurally clear. As such, the film feels a lot like an information dump, albeit one in a visually pleasant manner. However, those expecting the emotional pause or simplicity of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl will be sorely shocked (pun intended).
The film being informative doesn’t detract from it, however, as the story and decades it has chosen are fascinating. Gomez-Rejon’s freedom in the editing room is noticed as well, as he brings about some witty transitions and a free-wheeling rhythm to the narrative. The cast itself is impressive to watch, especially at such intensity levels, which are rounded out nicely with supporting performances by Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland, and Matthew Macfadyen. Gomez-Rejon is also bold enough to not paint Edison as the goodie American hero that he had been illustrated as in The Young Tom Edison (1940) and its sequel Edison, the Man (1940). Instead, Edison is shown as a three-dimensional empresario, with an arrogant streak and a tendency to take credit of his employee’s work (this iteration reminded me deeply of Steve Jobs). The same can be said for Westinghouse and the rest of the characters in the film; they’re all shown to be innovative and human entrepreneurs who are willing to get their hands dirty to come out on top in the capitalist system. Gomez-Rejon is able to show that while this capitalist system can breed ugly practices, it also is incredibly effective and inculcating innovation. As a result the narrative feels objective and its conclusions impactful.
However, the focus on acts and achievements in the film asphyxiate the story too much to allow room for the actual characters. As a result, we only get glimpses of Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla as people – this in large part thanks to the great actors – but we never fully dive or peek “behind the curtain.” This means that the film loses some important emotional impact that could have combined with the fascinating story in an electric way (that pun couldn’t be helped).
In the end, The Current War: Director’s Cut is an informative piece with stunning visuals about a crucial moment in recent American and world history. However, the film seems too focused on its characters’ achievements to pay much attention to the individuals themselves. As such, the film’s appeal narrows to those entering with curiosity rather than an expectation of entertainment or emotional immersion.