If the competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to literally light up the country does not intrigue you, then perhaps the first time the electric chair is used to execute a murderer will whet your appetite. Nevertheless, the primary cast of Benedict Cumberbatch (Edison), Michael Shannon (Westinghouse), Nicholas Hoult (Nikola Tesla) and Tom Holland (Samuel Insull, Edison’s secretary) is compelling enough to recommend THE CURRENT WAR.
The film begins in 1880 and Edison is on the brink of illuminating a large portion of Manhattan with his direct current (DC) technology. However, Westinghouse has a different, longer lasting and cheaper system utilizing alternating current (AC), but he lacks the bulbs that Edison has invented.
All along it has been Edison’s contention that Westinghouse’s AC current is dangerous and could cause the death of anyone exposed to it, at any time. To try and prove his point, Edison experiments on animals, subjecting different species to the AC with deadly results. But no one has ever, of course, put a human in harm’s way to show the outcome.
Edison is resolute about not inventing anything intended to hurt another human being. But nobody told William Kemmler (Conor MacNeill), the unfortunate but deserving first victim of the electric chair. He hacked his wife to death with an axe. The build-up to the creation of the “chair” and the ultimate botched attempt --- albeit unseen but graphically described ---- is a bit harrowing.
The two are frantically trying to be the source of artificial light for the United States. Edison presses the wealthy J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) to back him, while the uber-wealthy Westinghouse partners with one-time Edison employee Tesla. (At one point, a Tesla majority stockholder announces that the name Tesla will never again be associated with anything important --- Ha!).
This “battle” culminates in 1893 in presentations to the organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair, including architect Daniel Burnham, whose job it is to pick a winner. Thus the 1893 exposition leaders must choose between saving money with a potentially better, but possibly fatal, system versus using Edison’s name to sell tickets. One humorous example of Edison’s popularity is on display when he is testifying in court, pulls out his trademark cigar, and the judge leans over from his bench to light it.
Once the Fair execs make their decision, we see hordes of exposition attendees amazed as the “White City” is lit up via thousands of light bulbs. Kudos to Chung-hoon Chung, Director of Photography, who previously collaborated with THE CURRENT WAR director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon in 2015 on the well-received ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL.
To be sure, THE CURRENT WAR will appeal to those harboring scientific curiosity. For the rest of us who take for granted Edison brainstorms that also include the phonograph and kinetoscope --- i.e., the first motion picture exhibition device --- this movie is certainly interesting enough. We also see the humanity of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison loses his wife, Mary (Tuppance Middleton), early on to a deadly brain disease, leaving him with two young children. Westinghouse proves his generosity to Tesla who initially asks for $5,000, then amends it to $1,000, to finance his ideas. But Westinghouse, after laughing uproariously, offers Tesla $2.50 per filament, which ultimately will lead to millions of dollars.
Cumberbatch impresses, as he has in other films, with a credible American accent while Hoult manages to maintain a strained version of English as he speaks in his character’s native Serbian accent. Cumberbatch’s Edison is passionate about his life’s work, at one point saying he’s got enough ideas floating around in his head to last 12 lifetimes. As for Tesla, he had to deal with the label of “just an immigrant” who should go home.
Shannon, who seems as if he’s been around cinema forever --- he’s only 45 --- always renders a solid performance. Westinghouse is portrayed by Shannon as a likeable businessman and a good husband to his wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam). Holland proves he is capable of roles outside of Spider-Man with his very good portrayal of Insull, a young man unafraid to stand up to the opinionated and often belligerent Edison.
Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on
THE CURRENT WAR, and a pair of composers,
Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, both Oscar-nominated for LION (2016), provide the often-stirring music. Screenwriter Michael
Mitnick reverted to an assignment when he was a freshman at Yale to write the screenplay for THE CURRENT WAR. Initially it was a short-lived musical, but after 10 years, he dramatized the whole story. And the closing credits offer photos of the real-life figures portrayed in THE CURRENT WAR, along with brief statements about their lives and ultimate deaths.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!