The Current War is about Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) scrambling to build the electrical grid that will power a nation. When the movie begins, Edison is already a famous “inventor”, known most recently for the invention of the lightbulb, and Westinghouse has made an enormous fortune from air brakes and is in the natural gas business. As electricity emerges as a power source, Edison supports direct current, and Westinghouse sees the greater potential of long range alternating current. We know the outcome, of course, because we still use alternating current today, so there isn’t much suspense involved. What it all boils down to is a movie about two rich men arguing over which one will get richer. The stakes could not be lower.
Cumberbatch and Shannon are perfectly fine, though Cumberbatch has played so many geniuses it’s starting to get stale. To his credit, he tries to put a spin on it, but it’s really hard not to see nineteenth century Doctor Strange farting around with lightbulbs. (An impression not helped by the presence of Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison’s secretary. It’s like Doctor Strange and Spider-Man doing old timey science together.) On the other hand, it’s always nice to see Shannon outside of psychopath mode, and he plays Westinghouse as a dignified man whose defining feature is his mustache. It’s not his fault—the writing is pretty limp. (The screenplay was written by Michael Mitnick, but story would be better served by Ken Burns.)
There is one bright spot, though, and that is Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla. He’s barely on screen, because once you introduce Tesla into a story he completely takes it over, but Holt is PERFECT as Tesla. He bears a passing resemblance—chiefly in the “tall, thin, pale” category—and he delivers on some known Tesla quirks without turning Tesla into a twitchy mess. He makes his choices small, like a slight hesitation to shake a hand, and a decision not to touch a doorknob. He’s also attired beautifully (costumes courtesy Michael Wilkinson, Zack Snyder’s go-to costumer) in keeping with Tesla’s reputation as a sharp dresser. The best scenes in The Current War are the two in which Tesla interacts with Westinghouse, solely because they talk of the future Tesla envisions.
It would have been interesting to watch a movie about Tesla inventing the A/C motor, but instead we get a movie that perpetuates the myth of Edison as a great inventor. Westinghouse’s role in developing A/C technology is on more solid ground, as he is shown working in partnership with engineer Franklin Leonard Pope—there’s no illusion Westinghouse is the chief inventor of this technology. Edison, though he has a workshop full of engineers, including Tesla at one point, is given sole credit for everything coming from his workshop. It’s 2017. Why are we still committed to this bad history? We know Edison didn’t invent this sh*t. He ran an incredible research laboratory and he was a good talent spotter, but he also cheated people out of patents and squandered better ideas—like Tesla’s A/C designs—to support his own bad designs.
Besides Tesla, the most interesting aspect of the movie is Edison’s involvement with the electric chair, which he helped design as part of his Westinghouse smear campaign in which he went around electrocuting animals to prove A/C was dangerous. If The Current War was committed to showing Edison as a bad guy, it could have been interesting. That would, at least, be a perspective, which the movie lacks as is because it’s the “not all men” of inventor stories.
The Current War doesn’t want either Westinghouse or Edison to seem all that bad, except one of them MURDERS ANIMALS to convince people A/C is dangerous. Westinghouse isn’t a saint—he hires a guy to steal the letters that prove Edison worked on the electric chair. But when it comes to breaking and entering and animal cruelty, one is definitely worse, and yet The Current War acts like they’re morally exactly the same. If you want to watch a boring movie and a bad history lesson, watch The Current War. But if you want a good movie about the dawn of the electric age, we’ll just have to keep waiting for that Tesla movie.