The Current War: The Director’s Cut
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tuppence Middleton, Katherine Waterson, Nicholas Hoult
Writer: Michael Mitnick
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
So, if I told you The Current War is a historical drama about a titanic face-off between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, battling over whether America’s electrical system should be wired AC or DC, would you stand up, throw your head back and declare, “Count me in?”
Eh, probably not. But trust me, The Current War is at times positively enthralling, and the stars — Benedict Cumberbatch as boyish, blustery Edison and Michael Shannon as the reserved, ruminative Westinghouse — provide the juice to make this history lesson shine.
Every school kid knows Edison invented the light bulb, and to light those bulbs he preferred Direct Current (DC), a system that required transformers every couple of miles, but was so safe you could press your hand to a bare wire and not get shocked. Westinghouse’s Alternating Current (AC) could travel hundreds of miles but, if handled without insulation, would cause instantaneous death.
As The Current War unfolds, the two men feud from afar in the press, Edison masking his all-consuming ambition with the down-home charm that endeared the inventor to America. As Westinghouse, Shannon appears more businessman than visionary, a gentleman appalled by his rival’s dirty play (Edison convinces the State of New York to execute a prisoner via AC current, then goes about declaring that the man had been “Westinghoused”).
I loved The Current War when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2017, but I was in the minority: Most critics found the narrative a bit jumbled. Originally a Weinstein Company film, its release was cancelled when Harry W’s studio sank in the #MeToo Sea. During the two years the film was in movie limbo, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon performed some choice edits and additions to move the story along and heighten the drama — hence this version’s “Director’s Cut” subtitle. He’s made nothing but fortunate choices, particularly in giving his two stars even more time to let their characters breathe.
If you’re wondering who won the AC-DC debate, be my guest and stick a finger into the nearest wall socket. As feuding moguls, Cumberbatch and Shannon offer a more pleasantly charged history lesson.