AC, DC or AC/DC? That’s the question posed by “The Current War,” Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s docu-drama about the nineteenth-century battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the best means of delivering electricity to homes and other potential users throughout the United States. Nikola Tesla and many other luminaries of the era play subordinate roles in what’s basically the tale of a stand-off between two industry titans that was probably more interesting in real life than it proves in this strange mixture of staid recreation and overemphatic technical virtuosity.
Actually the story behind the movie, in its way, is as fraught as the Edison-Westinghouse conflict. It was shot in 2016 as one of the last projects of Harvey Weinstein’s company, and as was his habit, the producer took over the cutting of the picture, much to the director’s distress. The original version was received poorly at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, and when the scandal around Weinstein’s personal conduct exploded and his firm collapsed, it was pulled from release and eventually sold off with the company’s other assets. Gomez-Rejon was able to do some reshooting and re-editing, which explains the subtitle; Weinstein’s name has been removed from the list of producers.
Only those who attended the screening in Toronto two years ago will be able to discourse on the changes, but in this final, director-approved form the picture emerges as an interesting story sumptuously but clumsily told.
It certainly boasts two fine leads. Benedict Cumberbatch depicts Edison as a man who’s certainly full of himself, but with good reason—his insatiable need to add to human progress through invention and scientific discovery has made him a celebrity, and he revels in his influence and is deeply wounded when it’s threatened, though he’s also dependent on the patronage of rich bankers like J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfayden), whose good will—and checkbook—he must cultivate. (One’s sympathy for him is enhanced by the fact that he has two lovely children, whose mother—played by Tuppence Middleton—dies young as he broods about his inability to save her.) But Edison is also presented as a person willing, though rather guiltily, to work surreptitiously to undermine a rival when he believes that man’s approach to the use of electrical power does, in fact, endanger people. Cumberbatch’s intensity captures all these facets of the character.
The rival in question, of course, is Westinghouse, whom Michael Shannon skillfully portrays as an industrialist typical of the Gilded Age—determined to win at any cost, even if it means endangering the well-being of his top engineer Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend), who dutifully tries to meet his demands. You can say that what the screenplay by Michael Mitnick posits are two mirror-image partnerships, with the inventor the senior power in the Edison-Morgan pairing and the money-man dominant in the Westinghouse=Pope one. Westinghouse’s drive is exceeded only by that of his wife (Katherine Waterston), who prods him to take whatever action is needed to advance their case.
Other figures are introduced in the course of the battle between the two men, most notably Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who first goes to work for Edison and then, frustrated by the limitations put upon him, becomes an important member of the Westinghouse team, and Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), Edison’s personal secretary and closest confidante. Neither gives an especially strong performance, but they, like Macfayden, Townsend, Waterston, Middleton and the rest of the supporting cast, are fine. So also are the elegant production design by Jan Roelf and costumes by Michael Wilkinson; the recreation of the 1893 World’s Fair, which was lit up by one of the protagonists and serves here as the conclusion of their contest (and where, for the first time, they meet and exchange pleasantries) is especially fine.
But despite its many virtues, the film has serious flaws. The script is good in laying out the practical difference between Edison’s DC system and Westinghouse’s AC one—emphasizing the former’s more restricted range and the latter’s more expansive one—but it does so only in the context of the men’s financial interests, not the actual science. (It’s even less successful in specifying how exactly Tesla’s contribution revolutionized the discussion.) A major subplot surrounding the creation of the electric chair as a mode of execution, moreover, while it certainly plays into Edison’s concern with the dangers posed by the AC system and his willingness to employ subterfuge as a means of darkening his rival’s reputation, is never successfully integrated into the larger narrative, though Conor MacNeill has a few memorable moments as William Kemmler, the first man put to death with it. (Fortunately, the gruesome result is only verbally reported rather than shown.)
Perhaps that’s a result of the convoluted editing and re-editing process, which has in fact resulted in a frequently jerky, stumbling rhythm, alternating between hectic scenes and solemn ones. (Justin Krohn is credited along with the original cutter, David Trachtenberg.) But the bizarre camerawork, with its swirling tracking shots, deliberately odd compositions with curious angles and lens tilts, and frequent employment of brutally overdone close-ups, must have been contrived from the start, and rather than enhancing the narrative coherence distracts from it. This choice can’t be attributed to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, whose work is otherwise extremely sophisticated. It must have been an artistic choice by Gomez-Rejon, and one can only conclude that he must have thought that the story would be dull without such a barrage of visual flourishes. It was a bad call.
Unlike most movies that sit on a shelf before finally being released, or are tinkered with after an initial showing or on a producer’s whim, “The Current War” does not emerge as a disaster. It’s not boring, and is sporadically quite impressive—like Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” say, or Orson Welles’s “Mr. Arkadin,” which even goes by various titles. Though it will probably never reach their status (or notoriety, if you prefer), it would make for an interesting pastime to compare Gomez-Rojen’s cut with the 2017 version, if for no other reason than to observe one of the last examples of Weinstein’s handiwork in trying to fashion something that would appeal to awards voters—which was, after all, one of his specialties, and apparently not the worst of them.