The Current War: Director’s Cut is a long-awaited release of a new edit of a film that first premiered back in 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It takes a look at the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over the future of electricity. Caught up in the whirlwind are Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), and Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), Edison’s right-hand man who would go on to become one of the founders of General Electric.
In the late 1800s, Edison was on a roll, having become America’s most famous inventor after producing the first viable light bulb, and inventing the phonograph. His company started installing electricity using a direct current (DC) system that he held the patents for. The problem was, the houses had to be within a mile of the power stations, which was expensive, and made rural installation impractical. Meanwhile, alternating current systems were pursued by several companies, including one owned by George Westinghouse. With alternating current, you could step up the voltage and transmit it over longer distances, making it cheaper. The problem was, motors used direct current, so AC wasn’t entirely the obvious choice. Along comes Nikola Tesla, who started off working for Edison, but eventually came up with an idea for a motor that would work with AC and teamed up with Westinghouse.
“…a long-awaited release of a new edit…It takes a look at the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the future of electricity.”
That may sound like a lot of dry physics and history, but that’s just the struggle one the surface that The Current War uses to explore the personalities of the men engaged in the war to power the country Edison was a showman and a great fundraiser, but he wasn’t particularly good to his first wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton) or his children. He was also an asshole. He electrocuted cats, dogs, horses, and an elephant in an attempt to show that Westinghouse’s AC current was more dangerous. This contrasted with Westinghouse’s more dignified approach of trying not to engage with Edison’s shenanigans, and trying to do right by his wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), and his employees. Meanwhile, Tesla was more of a pure scientist, and had brilliant ideas, even though he sometimes had trouble capitalizing on them.
We haven’t seen Edison or Westinghouse on the big screen recently, but Cumberbatch and Shannon are excellent choices to portray them. Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Doctor Strange, The Imitation Game) excels at playing the insufferable genius, and he delivers here. Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Man of Steel), always brings the gravitas, but it is nice to see him playing a decent, quiet man instead of the villain.