A Few Bright Lights, But Ultimately Not Enough Power
Featured image credit Jason Leung
The Current War is a historical drama directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) about the electrification of the United States in the late nineteenth century. It was released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland last week following a messy development to little praise from critics. This was in spite of the generally strong performances all around and interesting subject matter, so I thought it might be worth digging into the film a little deeper to see where it may have gone astray.
The film depicts what was called “the war of the currents” (people at that time being notably worse at wordplay) between Thomas Edison (Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (The Shape of Water‘s Michael Shannon) in which Edison’s direct current (DC) system for providing electricity for lighting went up against Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC) system.
This conflict between the two men of industry draws a sharp contrast between their characters and outlook on life. Edison, burned by previous setbacks and afraid of losing again, is depicted as the more conniving and proactive of the two. What initially seems like the stereotypical Cumberbatch role – an aloof man who we are told, repeatedly, is a genius, whose difficult behaviour drives a wedge between him and those around him – reveals itself to be that of a flawed and conflicted man hiding behind a standoffish persona. Westinghouse is shown as a humble man, eager to cooperate and do what he can to move things in the right direction. He is also aware of his capacity to behave ruthlessly but hesitant to do so despite the urging of those around him, in particular his oddly Lady Macbeth-esque wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston of the Fantastic Beasts series).
Further filling out the spectrum of innocence-to-cunning is Spider-Man Homecoming‘s Tom Holland as Edison’s extremely idealistic personal secretary Insull. Finally, Nicholas Hoult (of About a Boy and some other films that just don’t have the same place in my heart) plays Nikola Tesla, whose relatively self-contained arc throughout the film gradually hardens his initially somewhat naive outlook.
“George what-inghouse?” one might ask, given that Morninghouse is hardly a household name in the present day, I personally struggled to recall it within an hour of watching the film. This idea of legacies and of what sort of people get to have their names and deeds remembered by history is one of the themes of the film. The film’s version of Earlinghouse is a real team-player, yet, as our own experience and the film’s epilogue indicates, he is mostly forgotten. Meanwhile, the egocentric showman Edison (who is clearly fixated with putting his name on things and very reminiscent of more recent figures like Steve Jobs) and the eccentric genius Tesla are both well-known today, though the latter took a circuitous route to it.
Elsewhere, Matthew Macfayden (Pride and Prejudice) plays J.P. Morgan, Edison’s backer who along with Edison and some other businessmen that Tesla does business with flesh out one of the other driving questions of the film: is a winner-takes-all market the best environment in which to make real progress and decide what is valuable? Rather than having two systems that could complement each other well (Westinghaus’ AC system and Edison’s superior light bulbs) that are forbidden from coming together by competition, the film suggests that everyone would benefit by bringing the best of both together, as Chestinghouse wants to do from the start.
So, with all these “big ideas” in play, how does the actual film turn out? The answer, unfortunately, is more akin to today’s bewildering developments in circuit boards than the simple elegance of Edison’s “lightning in a jar” incandescent light bulbs. Juggling so many themes, plot lines and characters while sprinkling in interesting though somewhat unnecessary historical details leaves the film feeling a bit confused.
The film has no shortage of plotlines, some of which feel isolated from the others. While it plays nicely into the ideas of the film, Tesla’s arc (arc-light, har har) consists mostly of occasional scenes dotted throughout the film almost at random, despite his heavy presence in the trailer. This complicates a film that already has two leads moving in their own worlds with their own supporting casts that rarely overlap.
There is however a great deal of overlap in the structure of Restinghouse and Edison’s stories. While I maintain that Worldinghouse is consistently portrayed as the more noble and conscientious of the two, Edison has his moments, in particular his early declaration that he’ll never create something that inflicts harm and his commitment to high quality-standards. So, for portions of the film, we cut between two different versions of a story about men who feel backed into a corner and forced to abandon their principals, Edison just takes things much farther and bends much easier.
At the risk of sounding callous, the plotline with Edison’s family (featuring Tuppence Middleton as Edison’s wife Mary) who practically disappear about midway through, seems included in the interest of historical accuracy and to give Cumberbatch some capital “A” Acting moments, good as they are. Similarly, the sub-plot about Edison’s development of the technology that would give birth to the motion picture industry doesn’t really contribute much to the overall story, but Hollywood loves to talk about “the magic of motion pictures” I suppose. Yet despite these inclusions, a quick glance at Wikipedia indicates that certain liberties were taken with the historical facts in order to streamline things. In other words, the film attempts to cover too much while at the same time excluding details from what it is included.
The ending is a little strange as well, the final line is about how ideas are what are remembered, which felt like a bit of turn away from the preceding focus on the clash of personalities at the expense of any real discussion of how ideas come to be. We then switch back to a character focus with a “where are they now” type of epilogue. This jumping around at the eleventh hours gives a sense that the film doesn’t quite know what final message it wants to leave audiences with, which is unfortunate.
I’d argue that another part of why the film fails to stick the landing is that there’s some context and details that would have been useful to have, in particular in relation to Edison and his feelings on AC that drive much of the film. We’re told early on that using AC the way Waterhouse suggests is at the time considered impossible, his engineer confidently asserts that if it were possible, Edison “would have done it”. This of course raises the question of why didn’t he? Edison’s moment of absolute commitment to DC over AC occurs prior to the events of the film despite being one of the driving forces in it. Is the casual viewer supposed to believe that the genius Edison is just wrong? That, despite being described as a man with the determination to find a needle in a haystack, Edison just gave up on the idea of AC too soon? Is it pride? Is it that the Market won’t allow him to back down from his current position?
Similarly, an open question throughout the film is whether Edison really believes AC is dangerous. At the turning point of the film in which the war of the currents starts to get nasty, Edison is talking to reporters about Bathhouse’s AC system. As the reporters begin to leave, sparks emerge from one of the devices being worked on in the lab and Edison has an idea, a light bulb moment if you will. “Did I mention that his system’s lethal?” he calls out to the press, who take great interest in this story. While it’s fairly obvious in the scene that he’s exaggerating the danger, in his private conversations it’s never entirely clear if there isn’t some part of him that genuinely holds these concerns. Is Edison outright lying or again just wrong? And is noble Weatherhouse correct to quash claims about the dangers of his system or is he, given the information available to people at the time, railroading over legitimate concerns in the interest of profit and cornering the market? These are not inconsequential questions about the motivations of our main characters.
Ultimately, The Current War feels like something of a missed opportunity given the real-world events that inspired it. A cursory google search suggests there’s never been a high-profile Edison biopic (one on Tesla is due out later this year) despite his notoriety, perhaps because Edison’s long and storied life is hard to convey in one film, let alone as just one character in a film with two main characters and a third pseudo-protagonist running around between scenes. The film doesn’t quite succeed as a character study, nor as a historical account of the events despite containing elements of both. That said, it’s still entertaining for the most part and a look, albeit a somewhat unfocused one, into an interesting moment in history.