TIFF FILM REVIEW: THE CURRENT WAR Mostly Zapped Of Creative Energy
Did you know that America’s most prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, was kind of a nasty person? I did not, at least not until I saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the New Jersian in The Current War. Not that I should be surprised, as many movie geniuses tend to have that bad boy quality that draws us to their stories—think The Social Network or Steve Jobs. Even the film that opened TIFF, Borg/McEnroe, explores our endless fascination with troubled geniuses, devilish heroes.
The problem with The Current War which focuses on the battle between Edison and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, again) for supremacy within America’s burgeoning electricity web, is that, unlike some of those other movies about lovable bad boys, The Current War inexplicably focuses on an episode of Edison’s life during which not only is he insufferable, he is sort of always (spoilers) a loser.
We begin in the 1880s with an anemic prologue about the state of the stalemate between Edison and Westinghouse, a few years after the former has invented the filament lightbulb. Immediately we are off on the wrong foot as the audience is naturally curious about, but deprived of, any insight into that momentous achievement. Instead, we are dropped in the middle of a dispute over two systems of delivering currency, the qualities of which are also scarcely explained.
No matter, the showy period costumes, the moody lighting, and the catchy music are sufficient to keep us piqued, at least until the action finally gives way to big maps of the USA’s electrical grid setting out what is at stake between the two professional rivals. It looks almost like some of the chalkboards that Alan Turing set up to crack the enigma machine in The Imitation Game, and any similitude between the two films is clearly not a coincidence. (Indeed, they have The Weinstein Co. behind them as well.)
Indeed, Cumberbatch plays Edison with flashes of the same misunderstood genius, well-meaning eccentric that drove his portrayal of the British programmer in that World War II film. Though his desire to give American Edison a slight across-the-pond accent may have been going a bit too far.
The Current War then ambles from conflict to conflict like a lost electron, and never quite crystallizes into a unifying thread. There is an interesting subplot about the invention of the electric chair as a method to execute death row inmates that emerges in the late 1880s and 1890s as a byproduct of the cutting rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse. Edison essentially engages in a smear campaign against George’s form of delivering electricity, arguing that the alternating current system of Westinghouse was dangerous and could lead to human electrocutions and deaths. It is sort of a modern day, political smear campaign, except it features Cumberbatch doing his best to seem troubled, misunderstood, and completely unsympathetic. We have had enough of it in real life, I suspect.
In any case this thread gives way to explorations of the intimate lives of the two, which also distract from what is supposed to be the main theme. Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite, played by Katherine Waterston, is predictably long-suffering but his rock, whereas Edison’s wife’s early departure leaves the genius further damaged. Nikola Tesla—the guy whose namesake is on automobiles that are now all the rage, is somewhat caught in between the two geniuses, with his contributions going sadly unnoticed by his former mentor Edison. Mad Max’s Nicholas Hoult plays Tesla, but it is actually the up and coming young Mr. Tom Holland that wows a bit more with his portrayal of Samuel Insull. The character plays a pivotal role in the additional fall from grace that Edison suffers when investor J.P. Morgan meddles with his company. Insull would turn out, of course, to be influential in the design of utilities in the early 20th Century, but in The Current War Holland plays him with the necessary innocence and burgeoning intelligence that the character requires.
Following the a race to light the most cities in the United States and, the film’s most interesting act, its third, act explores to win the rights to electrify the upcoming Chicago World Fair. Here, filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Early and the Dying Girl), most flexes his creative nettle but enacting a beautifully rendered recreation of the famous summit, showy lightbulbs and all, and captivates even if briefly with the magic of all that genius getting together in one camps ground to celebrate human ingenuity. But the energy is decidedly middling at that point, having been drained by the simultaneous biographical and action-driven feel of the plot that will leave you a bit shocked for the wear.
We know that biopics, certainly those that involve American heroes, and bonus points if you need lofty set decorations, pompous costumes, and moody lighting, scarcely need justification to get green-lit by the Hollywood Machine. But even for the most interesting of topics—and the War of the Currents certainly are such an episode—one needs a little more these days than the formulaic music crescendo and title cards to infuse a film with the energy required to jolt the audience from their seats. Otherwise, I am afraid, we are left with little more than total blackout conditions when the titles roll.