As for Nikola Tesla as a cinematic character, it is impossible to beat his introduction as David Bowie walking through a shower of electric bolts in The Prestige. Say what you want about Christopher Nolan, but the man knows how to deliver iconic shots. The Current War, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and written by Michael Mitnick, suffers in comparison. It would be unfair to compare Nicholas Hoult’s Tesla to Bowie’s, because Hoult is a perfectly good actor, and nobody on or off the planet at this point can compare to Bowie for mystique. But while The Current War’s Tesla is less iconic, it is more historically accurate. Still, Tesla is barely in the movie. He’s an integral part of the history, and that’s shown, but we don’t much get to know him outside of a newly added scene playing up his immigrant status and making a car joke. For understandable reasons, the director’s cut has chosen to focus the drama where it crackles — between Edison and Westinghouse.
Who is Tom Holland’s character, Samuel Insull? He was Eddington’s personal secretary and helped found General Electric after a merger of Edison’s company and another. He’s a relatively minor character, but he’s featured prominently in the ads since he rose to fame as Spider-Man in the time between the movie being shot and released.
“…it takes the history and science seriously, and yet it doesn’t let them bog down the plot.”
I was able to see the original cut of the film, which premiered in 2017 at the Toronto Film Festival to mostly negative reviews. Critics complained that it was too showy with the camera work and too ponderous with the plot. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had said that version was rushed out to the festival before it was ready and that he had interference with his vision from Harvey Weinstein. Then when the Weinstein company collapsed a few weeks later, the movie was shelved.
After that came the legal battles, one involving Martin Scorsese, who was an executive producer, exercising a clause in his contract giving him final cut (on Gomez-Rejon’s behalf), to prevent the release of the Weinstein-influenced edit. Instead, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was given back the film, shot five new scenes, and trimmed 10 minutes from the run time. The director’s cut of The Current War moves at a faster pace than the original, the characters are better fleshed out, and the drama is more focused where it needs to be. The new cut has elevated the film from mediocre to interesting.
Even still, some scenes, both new and old, still stick out like odds and ends. Flashbacks to Westinghouse’s time in the Civil War serve an important thematic point but aren’t well woven into the narrative. There’s also a scene of Mary Edison talking to another woman thrown in seemingly with no other purpose than to pass the Bechdel test. And finally, there’s one with Tesla and Westinghouse playing billiards that just exists to talk about Tesla’s mysterious notebook and wireless power. Yes, Tesla thought he could pull off using the ground to conduct electricity, but he was wrong — this doesn’t work reliably or over long distances. In today’s cult of Tesla, some have taken him to be a near-mystical predictor of the future, one whose genius is yet to fully be put into practice (see, e.g., the entire movie of The Prestige). But this is a horseshit misunderstanding of how physics and invention work. Even brilliant people actually have more ideas that don’t work out than ones that do.
"…is more relevant today than you might imagine."