“When God closes a door, he opens a window,” the old saying goes.
Or to put it in film-making language – “When God takes away a Weinstein, he gives a Scorsese, which is a pretty damn good trade indeed.”
This is just what happened to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s beautiful, engrossing and often thrilling historical drama “The Current War,” and the film is better for it. Two years after being cut from the Weinstein Company’s release schedule in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and later re-edited by Martin Scorsese, “The Current War” has no right being as lovely or lush as it is. That’s the Scorsese touch all the way.
You probably haven’t heard of the film despite Scorsese’s involvement (as executive producer) and a stellar cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland and Nicholas Hoult. And that’s a damn shame.
History buffs will geek out on the compelling true story. Movie buffs will get lost in the sumptuous cinematography and the lovely performances. Even better, “The Current War” has something compelling to say about capitalism and the danger of putting profit ahead of principals. This “war” may take place in the 1800’s, but it feels as current as its title, and the film is all the better for the modern relevance.
The titular “war” was a competition between two titans of industry in the late 1800’s regarding which form of electricity delivery would be used to power the United States. The great Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) backed direct current, which was cheaper and cleaner than gaslight, but limited in range and expensive. Businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon) backed alternating current, which could work over larger distances at lower cost than direct current.
Edison, clearly, was backing the losing horse in this race, but he fought dirty – engaging in a publicity war by calling the safety of alternating current into question and later implicating Westinghouse in the creation of a brutal early version of the electric chair.
I won’t tell you who the winner of the war was although you can probably guess. Still, there is considerable joy in how the story unfolds – particularly in the latter chapters as both Westinghouse and Edison pursue a contract to illuminate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
As you may imagine, Edison and Westinghouse are the heart of this movie, and both Cumberbatch and Shannon give typically strong performances.
Cumberbatch recognizes the essential tragedy of Edison – a genius who was not above sacrificing his principals to get ahead- and the film is better for it. Cumberbatch, as always, finds a way to give the man his humanity while still making him unlikable and downright vile at times.
Shannon’s Westinghouse is a bit easier to like although he is not without flaws and failings. Shannon has always been an actor of contradictions – capable of both blockbuster bluster in “Man of Steel” and quiet moments of introspection in Jeff Nichols movies- and he taps into both of those instincts nicely as Westinghouse. As with the casting of Cumberbatch, you could accuse Shannon of being typecast if it didn’t work so well.
Hoult makes for an amusing Nikola Tesla, who finds himself pulled between the two geniuses in an increasingly aggressive tug-of-war. Holland, Stanley Townsend and Matthew Macfadyen find life in somewhat underwritten supporting roles. Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston, in roles that can only be described as “the wives,” do not.
But this is Cumberbatch and Shannon’s show, and they keep the film moving at a propulsive speed. At just over 100 minutes, the film clicks along nicely, and there really isn’t a wasted shot. Every moment feels earned – even the unexpected grace notes at the end of what is often a surprisingly nasty story of male ego and competition.
The cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung is gorgeous – full of sweeping aerial views, long tracking shots and lush luminescence mingled with darkness. Cinematography for this sort of period drama is often stodgy and by the book, but Chung found a way to make it as innovative and inventive as the film’s subjects. I dare you to find a better-looking film from 2019. If there was one, I haven’t seen it yet.
With such a brisk running time, the film inevitably skips over some plot points and underexplains some others. As great as Hoult is, Tesla seems a bit underused. And as nice as those grace notes are at the end, they don’t fully dim the impact of some of the macho nastiness that precedes it.
But as entertainment, “The Current War” (rated PG-13 for some violent content and thematic elements) is downright electric. It finds relevance, humanity and thrills in what could have easily been a labyrinthine bore of a story.
Give the credit to who you will- be it Scorsese or Gomez-Rejon or the cast. But thank your lucky stars that this actually saw the light of day and that it managed to be as compelling, thoughtful and engrossing as it is.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.