Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War” tackles a fascinating pivot point in technological and commercial history: the late 19th century battle between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse to fully electrify the United States. It benefits from a smart, snappy script and a well-rounded cast, and gives its director the chance to employ virtually every camera trick known to man. What it can’t do, however, is generate even the slightest bit of interest in what happens to any of its characters.
Directing his first feature after breaking through with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Gomez-Rejon seems wary of turning this period drama into a science lecture or a stuffy prestige project, and thus errs on the side of flashy modern technique. Ironically, this flattens the film into a much duller creature than it might have been had he embraced technical geekery and 19th century rhythms, its style calling attention only to itself. At one point very early on, Edison, his wife and children load into a carriage after a meeting with J.P. Morgan in the White House, and they’re shot facing each other with a wide fisheye lens. Is this supposed to indicate a distance between the inventor and his family? The disorientation of a meeting with such powerful men? An active mind on the brink of euphoric discovery? Not really – it seems to signify nothing other than the fact that fisheye lenses look cool. And looking cool appears to be “The Current War’s” primary aesthetic directive.
The film alternates between Edison, who has already invented the light bulb and the phonograph, in Menlo Park, and Westinghouse, inventor of the locomotive air brake, in Pittsburgh. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch with a suave bearing and an American accent that both seem modeled on Indiana Jones, Edison is brash, arrogant, and self-regarding, though not without reason. Michael Shannon is heavily mutton-chopped and mustachioed as Westinghouse, dialing down his intrinsic weirdness to play a man who was every bit as practical, respectful and team-oriented as Edison was a lone-wolf visionary. More important than their divergent personalities, however, is the fact that Edison favors the direct current, and lights up a square mile of Manhattan to prove his system’s potential. Westinghouse prefers the alternating current, and demonstrates his method’s versatility by providing light to Great Barrington, Mass., from a mile away.
There’s an interesting Real America v. Coastal Elites metaphor in here somewhere, with the retiring Westinghouse providing cheaper power to a small town, and the mediagenic Edison’s prestige system making a splash in New York. But the film doesn’t really have time to dig into deeper themes or nudge us to appreciate the difficulty of implementing a utility we largely take for granted – for these men, power is simply power, and they each race to gobble up exclusive contracts with one city after another.
Michael Mitnick’s script contains a number of clever ideas, and it starts to get into a groove when it details the escalating PR battles between the two entrepreneurs. Edison, shown to be quite loving to his children and wife (Tuppence Middleton), nonetheless has no compunctions about slinging mud on Westinghouse in the press, issuing concern-troll soundbites about the danger of his system and suggesting that his competitor’s surname should supply the verb for electrocution – which, we’re reminded, was a word that had yet to be coined. Westinghouse has a more aggressively supportive spouse in Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), and he strives to avoid character assassination or dirty tricks. But when Edison contrives to have Westinghouse’s name attached to an invention that neither man supports, the electric chair, Westinghouse shows his underhand.
Theoretically, the film should have a can’t-miss x-factor in every hipster’s favorite electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla. Played by Nicholas Hoult, the flamboyant Serbian genius first arrives in the U.S. to work for Edison, who underestimates his ideas, then makes a consequential defection to Westinghouse. Telsa’s story might actually have been more appropriate for Gomez-Rejon’s impressionistic style, but his abstract personality is an awkward fit here.
Shot from every conceivable vantage point, Jan Roelfs’ production design is extensively detailed, and cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung skillfully pulls off every Dutch angle, dolly shot and lens flare he’s asked to provide. But unlike the technologies the film details, so little of “The Current War’s” hustle and bustle serves much of a concrete purpose. Late in the film, Edison recalls the moment when, after untold months of failure, he finally perfected the 13-hour light bulb. His previous attempts had sometimes worked for a few minutes, but he had to stand back in awe as this bulb kept shining for hour after hour, realizing he had finally cracked it. “The Current War” feels like one of those earlier experiments – temporary flash providing too little illumination.