The 19th century race to bring electricity and power to the people is the subject matter of the new film, The Current War. It’s fitting that the film starts off with boundless energy, jumping from scene to scene, introducing audiences to the major players in the conflict, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Nikolai Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), and creating a wave of electricity with the score pulsing beneath the images onscreen.
Unfortunately, The Current War, much like a DC electrical current, can’t maintain that level of energy for the 1:47 run time, and by the end of the film, all of the charge from that first 20 minutes is gone, leaving only a shell of the film it tried to be at the start.
The Current War focuses mostly on the 10-year period that ended the 19th century. Edison (Cumberbatch) is trying to get his DC current in cities across America, but after an incident at a train station with a perceived slight, Westinghouse (Shannon) takes it upon himself to do the same, but by using AC current, which is better and cheaper. Edison and his wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton) and his secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) try to counter the moves made by Westinghouse and his wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston).
Enter a young Nikolai Tesla (Hoult), who at first goes to work for Edison, but after being stonewalled with his ideas, changes sides and partners with Westinghouse. Backstabbing and shady smear campaigns playing out in the media — and a side story about the first execution by electric chair — lead up to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the film’s finale.
The Current War plays loose with history, and certain aspects of the fact is blurred for the benefit of fiction. The script by Michael Mitnick presents the story in a rousing way, and the direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does an admirable job of presentation. The biggest problem with the film is when it plays too loose with history and overlooks certain historical figures, or assigns them to much lesser roles than what they really did, or vice versa. In short, The Current War is just “based on a true story” and is not, in any way, THE true story.
One flashback involving Westinghouse during the Civil War, being confronted by an enemy combatant, doesn’t work, and this story plays throughout the film, a few seconds at a time until the payoff, which really isn’t worth it. It’s an odd choice to include here, as it serves no purpose.
The Current War is pop history, at best. It glosses over some of the biggest events of the historic “war of currents,” and Hoult and Holland as Tesla and Insull are both given above-the-line billing, even as both are underused. The performances from the two leads, Cumberbatch and Shannon, are what carries this film and makes it worth watching, but if you want to know the whole — true — story of this pivotal time in the history of humanity, there are better avenues to learn all about it.
The Current War is rated PG-13 and is in theaters now.
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