‘Current War’ An Interesting Historical Drama


I found The Current War to be an interesting movie but one that really moves slowly though the story. Think of it as a very expensive PBS movie and things fall into place. Historical movies tend to do this, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon works hard to overcome that.

The movie focuses on the struggle between famous inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a major celebrity at the time the film begins (1880), and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), assisted by almost mythical inventor Nicola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) over the particular electrical system that would dominate America. Edison was a proponent of what is called direct current (DC) while Westinghouse and Tesla were pushing alternating current (AC). Since the struggle lasted 13 years, of course, many things were left out. The main focus was being able to light up the Chicago World’s Fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas.

Of course, in the long run, it did not matter. Most of the world uses alternating current, although there have been modifications. This is really a story of geniuses battling almost as much over pride as purpose. Edison, who most of us know as perhaps America’s greatest inventor, chose wrongly when he selected DC. It only works over short distances, no more than a mile. But Edison had the fame. AC would work far better but also had its problems. Westinghouse, on the other hand, is portrayed as a humble man even after becoming incredibly wealthy. Author Michael Mitnick goes out of his way to enhance this man over his opponent, although he does not make the mistake of turning Edison into a bad guy. Westinghouse recognizes Edison’s achievement but wants to use AC as an improvement. He would favor a merger. Edison used his connections to try to cut back on Westinghouse’s growth, but AC was far less expensive, and city leaders everywhere flocked to use it over the far more expensive DC.

Edison played dirty tricks galore including demonstrating how AC was dangerous because it could electrocute, while not noting that DC could do the same. Demonstrating on animals, he worked to create real fears. He even conspired with people who thought it a humane way to execute criminals. Westinghouse tries to work things out, but Edison ignores the potential because of competition. We also see the journeys of Tesla and the rise of J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) through their roles in this contest. Mitnick manages to show how all the different key concepts — light, electricity, machinery and infrastructure — all join at the time to move technological improvement quickly. It is clear this is more about entrepreneurship than simple competition.

Ironically, for the movie, a major problem is the star system. Edison is featured because we all recognize the name, but this was only a small part of his work, and he winds up an interesting anti-hero. Westinghouse is turned into a virtual saint to be a counterpoint, never really fighting back. The more colorful Tesla is almost a footnote in comparison. The film focuses more on the “war” between the two men and their systems than on the changes brought about by their leadership and how it fit within their time. Tesla was the man who solved the key problem, but he gets relatively little screen time. We see him being cheated by Edison and having patents stolen by others (a constant problem in Tesla’s life) as well as a few good speeches. But Tesla’s invention of how AC could power motors was by far the most important thing coming out of this, and no more than a minute or two was spent on that.

The cast is very good. Cumberbatch is excellent, as we would expect, although he could have used a bit more work on his American accent. A real problem is that his character is overwrought through far too much of the film. He is mostly bitter and angry. Shannon is even better, both charming and intelligent. He is also helped by Katherine Waterston as his wife; she is excellent. Hoult is fun. We could have used a lot more of him. In many ways, Tesla was more interesting than either of the main protagonists.

The film is an interesting bit of history. The director moves through different shots quickly, keeping the pace moving, even if the story does creep a bit. If you like history, this one is for you.