Thomas Edison showing off his light display in The Current War
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As we barrel toward the end of the year, the influx of awards-caliber films increases dramatically, along with a number of films that whiff of Oscar-bait. The Current War sadly falls into the latter category, even as director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (responsible for the effectively charming indie tearjerker Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) tries desperately to bring a unique style to a very standard, depth-free script.

A film about Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s battle over the future of electrical power in the United States sounds tailor-made for blatant awards contention. Period piece, check. High-profile actors (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon) playing real-life historical figures, check. Alfonso seems to know how plain and banal the material is, and in his struggle to energize the story, The Current War loses sight of character and, with that, its dramatic power.

Cumberbatch and Shannon star as Edison and Westinghouse, two of the greatest inventors in the industrial age. The two men are steadfast and determined in their efforts to bring new technology to the world stage and take the U.S. into the future. The much-less-personable Edison is supremely confident in his direct current system, which he uses to light Manhattan in a grand display. And when Edison is a no-show for a meeting with an eager Westinghouse looking to partner up, Westinghouse has no choice but to take matters into his own hands with crafting his own alternating current system.

Westinghouse stands strong in the argument that his electrical system is the far cheaper and more effective option. Meanwhile, Edison uses the press to spread word of the dangers inherent in Westinghouse’s alternating current system. And in between the two, the now infamous immigrant inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make ends meet as he vies for the attention and consideration of the warring inventors.

Nokola Tesla and bright lights

The Current War begins in very chaotic fashion, bouncing around between locations and conversations with a breakneck pace. Names of important figures flash onto the screen whenever they are introduced, with barely a few seconds for one to register the name to the face before we are off somewhere else.

It feels as if the film wants to have the fast-paced precision of David Fincher’s The Social Network, which crackles with an energy that few other filmmakers or editors can replicate. But that film’s script was as razor-sharp and clever as its editing, whereas The Current War struggles to sustain that kind of intrigue with its dialogue.

And so, The Current War‘s chaotic editing comes off as a transparent attempt to make the uninteresting interesting.  A huge defining moment for Edison’s character happens rather suddenly in the first half of the film, but the emotional effect the moment has on Edison is grazed over so quickly, because Alfonso refuses to slow things down and let our characters ruminate for fear that his audience might get bored. But when a film so blatantly wants to spice things up without a solid narrative foundation, the resulting effect is just as unengaging.

The problem is that there is great potential for some effective dramatic storytelling in The Current War. There is so much to mine from both Edison and Westinghouse, as far as what motivates them and how their family and loved ones play a part in their competition. But the script barely shows any interest in these ideas, instead focusing heavily on the point A-to-B-to-C plot of Edison and Westinghouse’s duel.

Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston are utterly wasted as Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, respectively. Waterston, especially, shows hints of Lady Macbeth-like greed running through Marguerite’s veins, but they are merely hinted at rather than explored by Michael Mitnick’s script.

Marguerite and George Westinghouse admiring their work

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the arrogant Edison well enough, even though the egotistical genius type is something that we’ve seen the actor tackle before. Michael Shannon gets to be much more reserved in his portrayal of Westinghouse, and his level-headed demeanor contrasts well with Edison’s cocksure attitude. Nicholas Hoult does what he can with what limited depth his Tesla is given, and Tom Holland can’t escape feeling like Peter Parker in the old-timey days, because he is written as a nothing character as Edison’s assistant.

Samuel Insull carrying important documents

And still, the film is absolutely stunning to look at, thanks to Alfonso and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s keen visual eye. Fish-eye lenses and wide shots are used to great effect in conveying the enormity of the cultural impact Edison and Westinghouse had in their time. Montages are filmed with a real fluidity of motion, when the editing isn’t getting in the way. The visual component is where The Current War firmly stands apart from the rest of its Oscar-bait essence.

A script that is uninterested in exploring its characters is an uninteresting script, a lesson that the highly stylized but ultimately hollow The Current War proves rather quickly. The relentless editing and persistent focus on the movement of the plot without giving depth to its central historical figures makes for a frustrating viewing experience. A bunch of cool shots and some fine acting can only do so much, when the writing just isn’t there.

The Current War is rated PG-13, and it is in theaters starting this weekend. All images courtesy of 101 Studios.

The Current War

4.5

Writing/Story

3.5/10

Acting

6.5/10

Directing

5.0/10

Entertainment Value

3.0/10

Pros

  • Michael Shannon and Benedict Cumberbatch's performances
  • Great visual style

Cons

  • Lackluster, banal script
  • Chaotic editing makes it hard to latch onto anything
  • Loses sight of character in favor of plot
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