The Current War

2019-07-28 10:44
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Current War.'


The true story of the rivalry between Thomas Edison, the difficult genius who sees the future as one being powered by safe but limited direct current electricity, and George Westinghouse, a wealthy family man who pushes forward the more dangerous but much more feasible alternating current electricity. Both are stubborn but principles men but whose electrical system will ultimately become the standard from that point until today?


It’s quite often the case that I have criticised biopics for falling prey to vanilla, unadventurous filmmaking, so it’s perhaps a bit rich that my biggest criticism with The Current War is that the overly busy, fancy filmmaking gets in the way of telling a compelling story. And it is, by its very nature, a very interesting and potentially engaging story that explores how Thomas Edison is known as the father of electricity when it is the largely unknown Westinghouse that is responsible for the system on which electricity has been based for well over a century.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon made a hell of a directorial début with the fantastic YA adaptation, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but he, unfortunately, has hit that dreaded sophomore slump. No doubt some of the blame must go to screenwriter, Michael Mitnick, and the choppy editing by Justin Krohn and David Trachtenberg doesn’t exactly help, but the problem here undoubtedly lies first and foremost with Gomez-Rejon who fails at the most important job any director has: bringing a story to life.

The Current War (get it?) is hardly a total write off as it does have an excellent cast delivering typically fine performances and there’s no getting past the potential of the true-life story at the centre of the film. It just never congeals into a coherent, let alone satisfying, whole. Worst of all, though it does pick up steam (or current) as it goes along, it’s pretty damn boring at times, with the first half-hour or so particularly struggling to connect. Unlike this week’s other uneven entry, the Best of Enemies, it never feels any more than half baked.

More than anything, the Current War suffers from a desperate lack of focus. Scenes transition from one to the next with literal form or purpose and the "action" is constantly shot in ways that are mostly just perplexing (it has more "Dutch angles" than the first season of Star Trek: Discovery). Some of the imagery is striking, but even on that level, the highly and very deservedly acclaimed cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) fails to live up to his own prodigious talents. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going on around here.

There’s just something uniquely frustrating about seeing such a great story gets lost in strange non-sequiturs (they bring Nicolai Tesla in early on for some reason but mostly forget about him until much later in the film) and plodding pacing. There’s something even more frustrating, though, in seeing this much A+ level talent wasted on a movie that is beneath them.

Mitnick has only a small and largely forgettable list of writing credits to his name (and he arguably does the best work here in writing Edison and Westinghouse as complex and well-rounded individuals) but looking through the filmography and past work of the film’s ace creative team, it’s hard to understand just how things went so wrong. They certainly had the talent in front of the camera (just look at that cast list!) to pull off a great film – even if, admittedly, very good as they all are, this isn’t the best work done by any of them.

What a crushing disappointment.

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