The Current War

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Current War
dir Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
scr Michael Mitnick
prd Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk
with Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton, Damien Molony, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Celyn Jones, John Schwab, Colin Stinton
release UK 26.Jul.19,
US 4.Oct.19
19/UK 1h47

shannon hoult waterston

holland and cumberbatch
After a rough journey to cinemas, this 2017-produced historical drama has been freshened up by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. With his whizzy visual sensibilities, which pull out internal feelings using snappy camerawork and a sparky script, the film traces the battle for supremacy as North America switched over from candlelight to electricity. It's a great story, and a fascinating film.
In the race to modernise America in the 1880s, Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) has the edge simply because he's already famous. His direct current isn't as efficient as the alternating current developed by George Westinghouse (Shannon), but he's a more charismatic salesman. He hires the Serbian genius Nikola Tesla (Hoult), but sacks him for questioning his ideas, so Tesla just carries on developing science way ahead of either Edison or Westinghouse. As the 1893 Chicago World's Fair approaches, millionaire JP Morgan (Macfadyen) has to work out where this competition is going, because his money is involved.
Gomez-Rejon directs the film like a present-day thriller that just happens to be set in the 19th century. The camera swirls around sets catching characters from angles that add insight into the story and keep it from becoming over-serious. The script expands to include personal elements such as Edison's close connection with his straight-talking assistant Samuel (Holland) and the illness that besets his wife Mary (Middleton). Westinghouse's wife Marguerite (Waterston) emerges as another forceful character.

The dialog is packed with attitude for actors to chew on, especially Cumberbatch as the preening genius whose talent was channeling other peoples' innovations into something with mass appeal. The best moments are reflective ones revealing his doubts, something Shannon has to do rather a lot more of, since Westinghouse is forever second-guessing his own skills. Shannon further deepens his role in scenes with Waterston. By comparison, Hoult's engagingly quirky-obsessive Tesla spends most of his time on his own, a brilliant man sidelined simply because he was foreign. His story is the film's strongest element.

While there's a sense that this movie is breezily skimming the surface, it still manages to raise important issues relating to the struggle between commerce and philanthropy. Both Edison and Westinghouse genuinely want to make the world a better place, but only Tesla is willing to do the work without needing to make a huge profit. All of them want the credit though, and the way things work out for them is eerily telling about the state of the world more than a century later.

cert 12 themes, violence 21.Jun.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall