This film is not current. What with it taking place in the late 19th century, it is very much dated.

I dedicate that joke to the comments section. Getting serious, The Current War had a rough time getting to a cinema near us. This film has been through some serious motions.

It had all the telltale signs of a critical darling. Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer. Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon playing two figures of great historical importance retelling a series of events that came to define a significant aspect of the modern world. It even had a young, up-and-coming Tom Holland to seal the deal. So, when the time came for its premiere at Toronto in 2017, the response was… dim.

Initial reviews, those that are available to read at least, were unflattering. Its release was pushed back so that its distributor, The Weinstein Company, could have a crack at rewiring it. But then the sexual assault allegations around Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein dropped, the company went bankrupt and the film was shelved. It would eventually be sold off to 101 Studios to give it an international release, but this was a new cut of the film as director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon shrunk its running time by ten minutes while also adding new scenes to it.

It’s the late 1800s, and Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) has ambitious plans. He is set on brightening up whole cities with his Direct Current electrical system, a goal that threatens the natural gas dealings of magnate George Westinghouse (Shannon). Westinghouse wants a slice of the circuit and doubles down on an Alternating Current system, which infuriates Edison and kickstarts a Victorian tit-for-tat: Westinghouse says AC is cheaper, while Edison calls him out on its apparent dangers. Alternating between the two powerful men is a young inventor named Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who might hold the key to success for whoever is willing to listen to him. Sparks fly as the race is on to light up the United States.

And if this is the improved version of this film, then it begs the question: How bad was it originally, considering what we’ve been presented with now?

Frankly speaking, The Current War is a hot mess on a technical level, which in turn has disastrous consequences on its creative components. Starting off, the film’s tone is all over the place thanks to the botched editing job. It cannot decide whether it wants to be a documentary, a historical epic, or an arthouse darling. There are elements of all three of these present in the camerawork, the narrative, and storytelling methods deployed by Gomez-Rejon. Previously, the filmmaker had primarily served as a second-unit director with his credits including Julie and Julia and Argo. I cannot tell you if his tone and narrative were at least intact in the original cut, but with this one we are left scratching our heads as to what he was going for. Judging by his random Dutch angles, I suspect that even he doesn’t know.

The two biggest repercussions of these failings lie in the story. The audience does not learn of the characters’ endgame until the third act, which compromises any buildup of tension. And the whole subplot concerning Tesla is completely dropped at random. Snippets tell us about he had to deal with the complications of American enterprise, but it is never properly addressed. It’s a real shame as a final turning point of the film has to do with a group’s instinct to ignore whimsical idealism in favour of a quick buck.

Screw it, this whole movie is a shame in how it bungles its potential. The story is riveting in its material, the creative liberties positively improve the drama, and it’s not immediately made clear who you should be rooting for as Cumberbatch and Shannon are very charismatic leads. Shannon especially as he puts on a performance that is refined and chilling. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch takes care of the clever quips aided by his young assistant played by Tom Holland. He also does a good job, as does Katherine Waterston playing Westinghouse’s supportive partner.

This cast is giving their all and it all works thanks to Michael Mitnick’s writing. I’m a stickler for good dialogue and the way in which the characters interact really does the subject material justice. These were fascinating times when powerful people were betting everything on a technology that they had only scratched the surface of. A dangerous technology, as evidenced by a final scene in the movie that honestly gave me chills. It involves a chair and bright lights.

However, all of this is inconsequential. The editing and directing in The Current War is unforgivably bad. You’re left with a film that looks and feels stunted, unsure of where it’s going or what it wants to be. It amounts to a very rough sit that, while engaging and not boring at all, is unsatisfactory and not very good by menial filmmaking standards. It’s a hard end to a film that had a hard life.

Last Updated: July 26, 2019

The Current War
Lightbulbs are briefly lit up before quickly sputtering out. The Current War, despite top-quality writing and casting, is blacked out by botched storytelling and ill-conceived filmmaking and execution.
55/ 100

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