Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore feature, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was a heartfelt, humorous and devastating coming-of-age exhibition that handled its challenging subject matter with the necessary heft, heed and nimbleness. The acumen, command and inventiveness shown by Gomez-Rejon in his adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ novel justly earned the director a seat behind the camera for a far more high-profile and hotly-anticipated picture, The Current War.
A dramatization of the combative and cut-throat sprint between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to illuminate the United States, The Current War is a biographical history lesson rooted in the electric transmission system competition in which Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC) and Edison’s direct current (DC) vied for supremacy.
Benedict Cumberbatch characterizes an egotistical, family-oriented Thomas Edison, burdened by genius and fearful of his own mortality. The opposition, George Westinghouse, is interpreted by Michael Shannon. An entrepreneur and engineer, Shannon’s persona is a rational and shrewd businessman who compromised and reasoned with Edison to put an end to their feud for the betterment of humanity’s future. Needless to say, their clashing personalities provided the spark that ignited a senseless, yet fruitful schism.
The format war among these industry pioneers featured smear campaigns, debates over safety and inhumane demonstrations of electrical power. All could’ve been avoided, however, if not for the male gender’s inherent and unbeknownst necessity to mark one’s established territory. In the case of The Current War, ironically enough, this fight against transience is demonstrated by a ridiculous pissing contest.
Rounding out the film’s polished ensemble is Katherine Waterston as Westinghouse’s resourceful better half Marguerite, Tom Holland as Edison’s timid, unappreciated whipping boy Samuel Insull and Nicholas Hoult, whose undertaking of a peculiar and obsessive-compulsive Nikola Tesla reflects the misuse of the actor’s wherewithal and his character’s marginalized contributions in The Current War.
Three-years removed from his Academy Award-nominated performance as the father of computer science Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, it was believed that Benedict Cumberbatch’s next portrayal of an incomparable and irreplaceable inventor, Thomas Edison, would return the British thespian to golden recognition. Regrettably, Michael Mitnick’s screenplay for The Current War doesn’t contain the crucial character dimensions for the tried and tested headliner to enliven the film’s protagonist. Benedict does the utmost to apply his natural flair and charisma to reel in audience members, and while not an entirely forgettable pursuit, Cumberbatch’s efforts are largely wasted.
Michael Shannon, who can be considered co-lead with Cumberbatch, predictably plays second fiddle to the story’s obligatory hero. Regardless, as is usually the case with an actor who possesses such deftness and an unmistakable intensity, Shannon’s dramatics produce a faint glow in a relatively dull picture. He’s endowed with the more memorable dialogue and a vastly different and likeable role, as opposed to Cumberbatch’s Edison. As Westinghouse, Shannon affirms once again that he can rightly inhabit the skin of any character.
Lost in the monotonous and unimaginative exploration of an otherwise fascinating and significant event is where The Current War excels. The film’s production and costume design spotlight a fastidiousness to period detail that exquisitely transports viewers back to the late 1800s. Some set pieces were obviously inspired by Christopher Nolan’s far more mysterious and far superior 2006 drama of similar vein The Prestige, including an introverted Nikola Tesla, albeit of inferior panache and impact. It’s just a shame Alfonso didn’t borrow from the surplus of magic that Nolan’s magnum opus so wonderfully irradiates.
Visual stimulation aside, The Current War clings to memorability via composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran’s melancholic musical accompaniment. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t a whole lot of emotional turmoil occurring on screen to warrant such a painstakingly beautiful and haunting score. An odd sentence considering this sort of amplification is worked the other way around. Still, Bertelmann and O’Halloran’s soundtrack is THE highpoint in a film that often doesn’t even begin the ascent.
Ultimately, Gomez-Rejon’s picture lacks the showmanship and narrative allure to fully realize what should’ve been a magnetic dramatization, with a lot of the blame falling on Mitnick’s maladroit, incomprehensible script and lacklustre personae. Nevertheless, The Current War brandishes its fact-based content and visual impressiveness, and rightfully so. There isn’t much that separates the film from being branded a standard biopic, and for all intents and purposes it is just that. But what can set the movie apart from the trough of biographical melodramas is up on the screen, even if it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.
Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War is unfortunately neutralized by Mitnick’s artless script.