The Current War movie review: fathers of invention, in conflict

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The Current War green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

An electrifying style lights up this geek adventure of the intersections between science, culture, and capitalism in the 19th-century battle to power our world. Cumberbatch and Shannon are brilliant.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; big science geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Full disclosure: I have not seen the “director’s cut” of The Current War that is about to hit US cinemas. I saw the cut that debuted at Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, the version that subsequently got caught up in the collapse of The Weinstein Company, which is also the version that had a UK theatrical release this summer. Unlike many of my fellow critics, I really liked the original cut of the film, and I feel confident in recommending even this new version to you, and here’s why.

Apparently this “director’s cut” adds back in five scenes that had been snipped out of that earlier, Harvey Weinstein–dictated version, yet is also, somehow, ten minutes shorter. It’s difficult to see how any such changes could go very far to addressing the issues that savage TIFF and London critics have had with the film. It’s equally difficult to see that this “director’s cut” stuff isn’t merely a cheap marketing ploy and a bit of a dodge: the “director’s cut” has its own separate page at Rotten Tomatoes, effectively erasing the original cut’s separate page, with its 31 percent Fresh (ie, Rotten) rating; it also means that North American publications probably wouldn’t republish any negative Toronto reviews, because who can be sure, sight unseen, if this new version isn’t better than the old one.

The Current War Michael Shannon
George Westinghouse would be ready for his closeup, but Thomas Edison hasn’t gotten around to inventing movies yet…

But it’s also difficult to see how a couple of brief added scenes and, it would seem, a couple of judicious cuts would negatively impact the things I liked about the film. Benedict Cumberbatch (Avengers: Endgame, The Grinch ) as Thomas Edison! Michael Shannon (12 Strong, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) as George Westinghouse! (Matthew Macfadyen [Lost in Karastan, Anna Karenina] as J.P. Morgan! Nicholas Hoult [Dark Phoenix, Tolkien] as Nikola Tesla!) In the based-on-fact industrial, technical, and capitalist battle to light up our world of the late 19th century! It is a plain fact that this sort of story told this way isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, and that there certainly are plenty of valid criticisms to lob at this movie. I love how director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) sidesteps typical costume-drama stodginess with an — *ahem* — electrifying visual style and a decidedly modern flavor to the storytelling, but some viewers might find it jarring or gimmicky. (The screenplay is by Michael Mitnick, whose only previous feature credit it the quite-bad YA sci-fi The Giver.) And it’s also true that there’s more than enough drama and character in this bit of history to keep a prestige-television series going for years. (Tesla is but a minor supporting character here, when he deserves a movie on his own; perhaps this is something the added scenes deal attempt to deal with.)

All that said, it’s rare we get a big movie intended to be a crowd-pleasing night out that is so full of ideas, one that asks us to consider that how the world is, the way our society operates on the most basic daily level, is not the way it had to be — that things could have been different is not something we are often asked to consider. (What if… our world had not been festooned with strung wire hanging from poles? What if we could have had electricity without all that? It seems like a minor issue, but once you begin to think about it, you see how the world might have looked quite radically other than it still does.)

The Current War Nicholas Hoult
Few people know this, but Nikola Tesla accidentally invented the lightsaber in 1895…

The Current War is not merely about the comparatively minute details about how dreamy, freespirited inventor Edison and the tough-as-nails businessman Westinghouse — Cumberbatch and Shannon are brilliantly cast — raced to test and install radically diverse technological solutions for delivering power for, initially, electrical lighting. (“The world is lit by fire,” and nothing else, we are reminded as the movie opens in 1880.) It’s also about how how quickly a new technology can reach a saturation point so that we can barely remember life before it; at one point (I hope this hasn’t been cut!), Edison ponders that in the future he imagines, one blazing with electrical lights, only rich people will use candles! (That wasn’t quite correct, but it did make me realize that, once the world was also nearly simultaneously taken over by automobiles, mostly only rich people or dedicated hobbyists now own horses. Meanwhile, someone here dismisses electricity early on as nothing but “a hobby of the rich.”) There is also a running motif about the unforeseen side effects such advancements can spin off — no spoilers, but if electricity can kill if you’re not careful, there are deliberate applications of that. And that necessitates a PR battle to craft the public reaction to this new technology. New tech is never just about the tech, not since it started changing our lives so rapidly… and not since there’s been a media to, well, mediate our ideas about the new tech.

Those intrigued by the intersections between science and culture, as I am, may find this a grand geek adventure with plenty of resonance for the world today, almost 150 years later. (Edison is Steve Jobs, Westinghouse is Bill Gates?) I found this is a grippingly told tale of how two wildly different personalities, and the clash and competition between them, had an enormous influence on the world as we know it today… one that also accidentally asks us to consider how the development of technology is shaped by the people who create it, and why a desire for profit should win out over other motives. This may be the way the world is, but by holding it up for our consideration, The Current War — there is definitely some irony in the title — sneakily asks us to wonder why it couldn’t be otherwise.

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