This biopic concentrates on the rivalry between two famous inventors and their race to be the first to give America the ‘miracle’ of electric light. The film starts in the year 1800, with Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the verge of a breakthrough with his direct current system. But then up pops George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), already a rich man from the gas industry, who proposes an alternating current version, which, he insists, will provide a cheaper and more powerful solution to the problem.
In the ensuing struggle to win the contract to light up America, fair play falls by the wayside; meanwhile, a Croatian genius by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make waves with a series of inventions that have the potential to eclipse the achievements of both Edison and Westinghouse combined.
It’s a fascinating but incredibly complex story, and Michael Mitnick’s script intially feels scattershot as it leaps frantically from location to location in an attempt to nail down all its disparate elements. But it’s worth sticking with, because – after a rather shaky start – the film hits its stride and becomes genuinely compelling, with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doing a creditable job of capturing the period. The film highlights a fascinating conundrum when Edison is approached to use his technology to create a ‘humane’ way of executing criminals.
There’s a starry cast here with the likes of Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston and Matthew Macfadyen relegated to supporting roles.
It’s clear where the filmmakers’ loyalities lie. Edison is exposed as a hypocrite, a man obssessed with winning at all costs, at first opposed to using his technology as a weapon, next electrocuting animals willy nilly in order to cast his rival in a bad light. Westinghouse, on the other hand, is portrayed as a much more reasonable type, a man willing to step aside from the glory in order to achieve the greater good. It’s also clear (correctly in my opinion) that Tesla is held up here as the true genius, a man who constantly found his ideas appropriated by his rich financiers and who died destitute, without ever achieving his extraordinary potential.
The Current War isn’t exactly a perfect film, but it does illuminate the difficult birth of something that we now all take for granted, an invention that genuinely transformed the world as we know it. It also depicts the depths that people will sink to in order to see their names go down in history.