If Thomas Alva Edison is the eccentric genius and nonchalant star that Benedict Cumberbatch does so well, Michael Shannon is solemn and noble as George Westinghouse, a role that is against his type.
The Current War movie cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen, Katherine Waterston
The Current War movie director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
The Current War movie rating: 3.5 stars
Told to describe his feeling in the exact moment he lit an incandescent bulb and, literally, saw the light, Cumberbatch’s Thomas Alva Edison, a showman-inventor never short of words, struggles. The essence of his long telling is the amount of time and number of hands that went into keeping that bulb lit for 13.5 hours.
Inventions, or discoveries, are almost always collaborative efforts such as these — unfolding through time. The Current War itself is about one such little-known chapter in the history of electricity — more than 120 years after it came to pass.
Through the late 1880s and 1890s, Edison and George Westinghouse (Shannon) raced against each other to bring electricity to entire towns. Edison had the head start, given his fame acquired through the electric bulb, and having given a demonstration where he lit up a portion of Manhattan. However, Westinghouse, having built a revolutionary rail air brake system, has the money and the heart to spot talent. There are two other fundamental differences between the men. 1) Edison isn’t stuck on scruples for getting ahead, though he is determined not to use his genius to help build anything that can help kill another human; the stolid Westinghouse, on the other hand, believes they, and the world, would be better off if they collaborated with each other and doesn’t see Edison as competition. 2) Having got off the mark first with direct current technology, Edison remains mulishly opposed to Westinghouse’s alternating current method, not just ignoring its advantages but using dubious means to discredit it.
Their characters a study in contrasts, Cumberbatch and Shannon bring out what puts them apart well. If Edison is the eccentric genius and nonchalant star that Cumberbatch does so well, Shannon is solemn and noble as Westinghouse, a role that is against his type. Hoult plays Nikola Tesla, another eccentric inventor who struggles hard to convince the world he can run motors on alternating current. However, he gets few chances to register himself in the film, and neither does Holland as Edison’s loyal and long-suffering assistant.
The Current War then — including with its parallels to the present world of celebrity entrepreneurs — has everything going for it. That may be one reason it has survived its Harvey Weinstein link, though arriving two years late to screen. Director Gomez-Rejon, whose work includes assistant-ships with names such as Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, mounts a stately and rich period film as well as some breathtaking montages of light and dark. But what the film lacks, for large lengths of time, is that crackle of electricity. It’s hard to put one’s finger on the exact missing spark, but it could be the single-minded focus on the two men, to the exclusion of what their tussle meant for a world they are about to change. It’s also difficult not to feel chuffed about how the film treats Mrs Edison and Mrs Westinghouse, who are present as constant, uncomplaining backdrops.
Towards the end, there is a spike in voltage as a hard-pressed Edison and a rejuvenated Westinghouse compete to get the rights to light up the Chicago World Fair, even as a man heads for execution by electric chair, for the first time ever. There is genuine static there — more, and this film, would have been shining.