The Current War

Edison has his eyes on the prize
Verdict: 
5/10 - The Current War had some interesting moments but was ultimately rather dreary.
Release Date: 
Friday, July 26, 2019
Written by: 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon play competing energy titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in this drama.

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Most people would have heard of Thomas Edison, the inventor of electricity, but perhaps not George Westinghouse or their competition to become the one to power America.

Most people would have heard of Thomas Edison, the inventor of electricity, but perhaps not George Westinghouse or their competition to become the one to power America.

The film opens in 1880 when Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows off his new energy source - electricity - by lighting a series of light bulbs in a field. This stunt catches the attention of Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who invented the railway air brake.

He soon realises electricity is where the money's at and so he gets into the electricity business himself, though he is adamant AC (alternating current) is stronger over a distance and cheaper than Edison's DC (direct current) supply system. However, Edison is certain that AC current is dangerous and sets about proving this by effectively launching a smear campaign against his competitor in the press.

Edison hires the young Serb Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) to make inventions using electricity, but the frustrated inventor quits when Edison refuses to listen to him about the benefits of AC or let him build a powerful motor. He eventually teams up with Westinghouse and they end up in a competition with Edison over who will be the ones to power the Chicago World's Fair.

The Current War takes an interesting part of history and turns it into a bullet point list of what happened. The events do span many years, so the film had to present an abridged version of them, but it hops around times and locations so often it's hard to keep up and remember how many years have passed since the previous scene. It retells key events in the summary style of a Wikipedia entry, without displaying much depth or character work.

It's a shame the writer Michael Mitnick chose to begin the film after Edison had invented electricity because it would have been really interesting to see how he discovered it in the first place. This film mostly revolves around the debate over which current is better, which isn't quite as gripping.

Cumberbatch and Shannon put in reliably good performances, yet, you can't really warm towards either of their characters. Westinghouse is more sympathetic because he tries not to stoop to Edison's level and sabotage him via the press, but it's understandable why Edison dislikes him, considering how Westinghouse basically rode on the coattails of his invention.

The star of the show was actually Tom Holland, in a supporting role as Edison's long-serving assistant Samuel. He is super smart and kind and the only character you really warm to. Hoult was fine as the poor, frustrated Tesla - who has great ideas but doesn't have the resources to execute them - but he wasn't given enough screen time, so you never get to know him properly. Katherine Waterston also gave great support as Westinghouse's headstrong wife Marguerite, a refreshing change from the usual period wife.

The Current War had interesting moments but was ultimately quite dreary, boring, and unforgettable.

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