Before Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg, there was Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla – and The Current War captures the magic of these 19th century inventors. It’s a movie about the advent of electric currents and their ambitious inventors. Ironically, it almost didn’t see the light of day.
The Current War, set in the 1880s and ‘90s, surrounds the controversies between Thomas Edison’s DC current and George Westinghouse’s AC current. The film was supposed to debut two years ago through distributor The Weinstein Company, only to be mired in modern day controversy and put on hiatus due to the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was able to reshoot and recut the movie in that time, and it’s now opening this weekend as The Current War: Director’s Cut. Watching the determined Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and equally dedicated but more altruistic Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) echoes recent biopics like Jobs, and ‘biopics’ like The Social Network.
Yet the history (and entertainment) here involves famed inventors you know by name, but you probably don’t know their entire backstory. You do get a sense of a decade of their lives, but not a full, start-to-finish biography of the already-established inventors in the 107 minutes runtime.
It’s a story that deserves to be told, and doesn’t hold back on the genius of Edison but also the ruthlessness of his commitment to seeing Direct Current succeed. He’s so resolute to have his form of electricity adopted by candlelit American cities that he’s willing to stage the dangers of Westinghouse’s Alternating Current on animals in an attempt to smear his rival in the press.
Westinghouse, already a titan of the Industrial Age, thanks to his invention of the railway air brake, continues to back Alternating Current with the help of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). Edison and Westinghouse rarely meet in person, but the film jumps back and forth between the two, giving the sense that they’re always at each other’s throats. It’s not hard to pay attention to the quick jump cuts, and they act as a way to spice up what could otherwise be a dry story.
Tesla plays a key role in the lives of both electrical industry pioneers, working for Edison at first – then, when his genius isn’t realized, Westinghouse. The movie flirts with, but doesn’t go into Tesla’s story nearly enough, as the spotlight remains squarely on the Edison vs Westinghouse rivalry. Tesla ends up being a minor, but important player in this particular film.
The complicated lives and work habits of these two innovators reflects a lot of what we see in today’s complex entrepreneurs. You admire them for their foresight to change the course of history and connect the world with their revolutionary ideas. Then you begin to discover they, at times, betray their own principles and make this mostly about winning a game.
The Current War: Director’s Cut stays true to the history of Edison and Westinghouse as we know it. It may have worked better as a Netflix or HBO series, diving deeper into the lives of both masterminds from a young age to their very end – the lives of both men feel as though they need an origin story. At the same time, it may have drawn things out to an even slower pace.
Biopics like this live and die by their source material. Too often, Hollywood studios like to gin up a true story in an effort to make the theater experience more entertaining. Argo is a perfect example of events that really happened, but many of the most exciting moments were fictionalized, especially toward the end of the movie.
The Current War’s pacing, as is, feels less intense than other recent biopics, and that’s OK. It’s more honest than we often see from movies “based on a true story.” If you’re looking for an entertaining lesson in history, you’ll get that here instead of entertainment mascading as history.