Review: The Current War

As laser-focused historical movies go, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s take on the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over who would build the first electricity grid in the U.S. has an immediately appealing hook in that electricity is something we take for granted without really understanding how it came into our lives. The obvious pitfall in any presentation of this story is getting past the technical aspects, because, basically, the rivalry was centered on the two men’s respective favored approaches to current: Edison preferred direct current, while Westinghouse thought alternating current was more efficient, and, for sure, a good part of the movie, at least in the beginning, is a struggle to make sense of the differences in these two approaches.

But that really isn’t the main problem, which is that Gomez-Rejon doesn’t know how to tell a story like this in a way that makes even the non-technical aspects comprehensible. That’s because there are too many celebrity inventors/industrialists on hand to keep track of, and often you wonder what exactly these people are up to. Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, looking nothing like photos you’ve seen of America’s greatest inventor) is already a celebrity when the movie starts, and because he doesn’t have the kind of cash necessary to fulfill his vision of electricity for the masses, he partners with Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), one of the richest men in the U.S. in the late 19th century, but eventually they split, mainly over decorum. The two men are supposed to meet to talk strategy and the preternaturally arrogant Edison doesn’t show up. Westinghouse carries the grudge into the next century, and in the meantime steals another inventor, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), from the Edison camp.

History demands we get into the two protagonists’ personal lives as well, thus bogging the script down in endless side trips to Mary Edison’s (Tuppence Middleton) illness, the cruel exploitation of Edison’s trusted assistant, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), and Westinghouse’s self-laceration for past sins that are never fully explained but are rooted in his Civil War service. Most of the movie is made up of one or the other Great Man of History ranting about the other. In the end, we may not fully understand the details and exigencies of the so-called current war, but we do know that Thomas Edison is a self-important blowhard and George Westinghouse is a sadly misunderstood plutocrat. Whether you believe those two portrayals are historically accurate is your own business.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (50-6868-5024).

The Current War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Lantern Entertainment LLC 2019

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