The Current War was initially released in 2017, debuting at a select few film festivals, receiving mostly mediocre reviews; in 2019, we are given a revised “Director’s Cut,” which appears to be an improvement over the original version, if more recent conversation is to be believed. From Oscar contender, to disposable historic biopic, my expectations for this film were in flux, but I was always interested. And the most positive thing I can say, is that this film is not disposable – I would actually watch it again.
Thomas Edison vs. George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla playing monkey in the middle; Hollywood tells the story of the battle over lightbulbs and electricity, who gets to power the country into the future, and who is left in the dark.
As advertised, this film serves up a slice of history where visionary geniuses and great inventionsists constantly try to one up each other. The Current War: Director’s Cut is visually stylish, Cumberbatch’s face masked in the light of a red bulb while menacingly plotting how to take his competition down never gets old; the cinematography of this film is a tad experimental, with some interesting choices regarding angles and design. Michael Mitnick’s Sorkin-esque script also keeps the material interesting, hitting beat for beat, with memorable lines such as “There’ll never be anything named Tesla again.” Such a tongue-in-cheek moment – I loved it. And if you couldn’t tell from the cast, the film is of course well-acted.
My main criticism of the film is that the stakes are never elevated to the level they should’ve been; we’re talking about bringing electricity to the entire country for the first time, and the film feels too concentrated. Everyone is racing to create the next best thing, or tell the press why they’re better, or to be funded by JP Morgan, or to be the one lighting up the Chicago World Fair, but the true importance of these plot points needed to be more apparent. The film, in an effort to cover as much as it can, also becomes unfocused in moments.
Clocking in at 101 minutes (coincidentally, the producers are 101 studios), the film is slightly shorter than its historic biographical peers, and that helps pacing from ever dragging, making the film a more fun and easy watch. While The Current War: Director’s Cut never quite reaches the voltage it aims to achieve, it is certainly worth a watch, and wouldn’t be a bad addition to US history teachers’ “movie day” collection. 8/10