It was just a matter of time before Benedict Cumberbatch played Thomas Edison. Considering the actor’s distinguished résumé is filled with so many arrogant geniuses of the literary, historical, contemporary, and comic book varieties, it’s almost a surprise it took this long for him to take on the famed American inventor, which he finally does in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War: Director’s Cut. Cumberbatch’s talent for giving the impression that his brain’s moving a little faster than everyone else’s suits his new subject perfectly — if only the movie moved with the same thrilling momentum.
A chronicle of the “war of the currents” between Edison and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) at the end of the 19th century, the film follows both men as they race to convert cities across America to their rival electrical systems — Edison’s direct current and Westinghouse’s more efficient alternating current — and ultimately compete to power the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Despite Gomez-Rejon’s admirable ambition, The Current War is bogged down by an effort to pack in too much. The Me and Earl and the Dying Girl filmmaker sometimes loses sight of his central story in the messy narrative, which is saved largely by uniformly adept performances. Cumberbatch, with his smartest-guy-in-the-room energy, is as watchable as ever and well-matched by a roomful of very smart guys: Shannon’s singular intensity makes the less-flashy Westinghouse a compelling foil to the showy Edison, and Nicholas Hoult (as Nikola Tesla), Tom Holland (as Samuel Insull), and Matthew Macfadyen (as J.P. Morgan) round out the cast of historical heavyweights.
The story ofThe Current War is inextricably linked to a very current controversy: Shot almost three years ago, the film premiered at Toronto in September 2017 ahead of a planned release — by the Weinstein Company — that fall, but was pulled after the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke in October 2017. The now-disgraced mogul had had a hand in editing the film that premiered at TIFF (to mediocre reviews), but in the time since, Gomez-Rejon raised money for reshoots and post-production, so the newly edited movie hitting theaters is much more in line with his own directorial vision (though it is forced to bear an awkward subtitle denoting it as such) and scrubbed of Weinstein’s dirty fingerprints.
Eternally current, too, is Gomez-Rejon’s interest in the destruction that inevitably comes with progress — the question of whose system will power the first electric chair plays out as a dark counterpoint to the World’s Fair — as well as his attention to the significance of how stories are told (and history is written), illustrated through Edison’s savvy manipulation of the press. Good ideas pop up throughout like so many lightbulbs, but none of them burn long enough to really say anything. Ultimately, the film sheds light on a fascinating episode in American history; it falls short, however, of being really electric. B
The Current War: Director’s Cut is now in theaters.