Film History

The Current War: The new film about Edison and Westinghouse is a sublime jolt for history lovers

The Current War, an epic detailing the battle for electrical power in the 19th century, was supposed hit theaters in the fall of 2017. But its distributor was the Harvey Weinstein Company and its release date was delayed by more important matters.

Flash forward to the fall of 2019 and The Current War has finally come to light, reedited by its director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and modestly released into theaters.

The film depicts the technological and financial war between Thomas Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to power the United States with electricity — Edison championing direct current (DC) while Westinghouse promoted alternating current (AC).

Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) lights up Menlo Park / Lantern Entertaiment

The film is a bonanza for history lovers — and a bit of a bust for regular film goes and probably an offense to fans of real science on the screen. Gomez-Rejon presents a series of sumptuous, even breathtaking historical recreations — from Menlo Park to Niagara Falls — with a sharp visual style.

Many scenes reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick; at its most ambitious, it was Eduard Muybridge by-way-of Brian DePalma.

The Current War gives us images we’ve rarely seen in cinema before — the lighting of lower Manhattan via the Pearl Street Station, the hauntingly lit grounds of Menlo Park, the triumph of the Chicago World’s Fair. (Obviously, at the Ferris Wheel, I gasped aloud.)

Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in the corridors of Pittsburgh high society / Lantern Entertaiment

The film is so busy checking off the boxes of actual history that it sometimes forgets to make its principal characters interesting. To be fair, there’s so much going on. But Cumberbatch’s Edison hangs from bullet points about Edison’s life that never feel like they add up to the actual man. Shannon provides Westinghouse with more contemplation and carriage.

And did I mention that Tesla was in this? He’s played by Nicholas Hoult and the performance only made me miss David Bowie’s version from The Prestige.

Tom Holland‘s hanging around too as Edison’s young assistant Samuel Insull. Comic book movie fans, if you’re keeping track — that’s Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Beast and General Zod in one movie.

The film’s fatal flaw is its failure to adequately visualize the core conflict — the battle of direct current vs alternating current. You know, the war of The Current War.

If you didn’t know what distinguished these two forms of electrical delivery before the film, it’s doubtful you’ll understand them afterwards. Scientific concepts can be difficult to translate onto film — finance shares the same problem — but the movie doesn’t really try.

Okay, but after all that — history buffs, please seek out this film! The worlds it creates are ravishing, often thrilling. The sense of gaslit rooms, the wonder of Victorian decor drenched in electric light. THE FERRIS WHEEL.

We have spoken about this subject many times on our podcasts. In fact, you can stitch the film’s screenplay together from listening to these past episodes of the Bowery Boys and The First:

Electric New York: Thomas Edison and the City Lights

The Spark: Nicola Tesla in New York

NYC and the Birth of the Movies (1894-1918)

Nikola Tesla and the Wireless World

This Morbid Invention: The First Electric Chair

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