Martin Scorsese may not dig superhero films, but he has superpowers — one among them is allowing The Current War to turn on all the light bulbs in its reel. A short recap of events: Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had completed his telling of Edison and Westinghouse and The Electrification of U.S. Towns, but what was shown to the world in Toronto in 2017 was producer Harvey Weinstein’s version instead. On top of that “lights are on, but wrong body’s home” incident, Weinstein’s predator self got spotlighted, and out went his production house and a release window for the film.
Now with the Director’s Cut tag, this Current War promises a more wholesome, more correct depiction of the events transpired when direct-current advocate Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and alternating-current supporter George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) duke it out to see who will be the first to literally conduct society into the future, beginning with winning the bid to illuminate the Chicago World’s Fair. Also peppered throughout the inventors’ bouts are the lives of the inventors’ wives (Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston, as Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse), the counseling from their advisors (Tom Holland and Stanley Townsend, as Samuel Insell of Team E and Franklin Pope of Team W) and the observations of immigrant futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
With that many names, developments and, in them, major markers, it’s reasonable to believe that writer Michael Mitnick has fused historical richness into the script (and a couple of inaccuracies for drama’s sake, of course). Not the case. If we are to visualize The Giver writer as the guide of the city museum’s “war of the currents” exhibition, he would be one who condenses a plaque into one sentence, proceeds to subsequent displays with a shortened dance and cues a circus to conclude the tour. The war between inventors also powers the war between the screen and the audience, it is too simplistic as a top-shelf razzle-dazzle (this was envisioned as a musical) and too snappy as a prestige period pic. In either form, however, characters and events central and peripheral are plagued with a literal lightness that reduces the stakes, the conflicts, the deductions, the revelations and the emotions deserving of a saga covering 13 years — 1880 to 1893 — into a book you can finish in 13 minutes.
In lieu of impact, The Current War compensates, perhaps too handsomely, with energy. Gomez-Rejon’s direction never fails to invigorate the film, ensuring that the reading of the aforementioned book involves fanning out the pages rather than flipping them — much like how Hoult’s Tesla does it if he wants to jot down the ideas that dreamily come to him, i.e. the coil. Although all the jump-cuts, top-downs, bottom-ups, handhelds and off-kilters that Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography supplies can become distracting, they bring modernity to the bygone settings production designer Jan Roelfs has decked out, a tease of the new world that is only one throw of the switch away. But just as the positive feelings you get from the aesthetics manifest themselves, enters a captivating incident that will exit as soon as it enters, and all you’re left with is the memory of how it gets told and not what is being told. Anything that concerns William Kemmler, the first subject for the electric chair, for example, where the draw is everything else but the moral element of the Edison v. Westinghouse war. But all is well, maybe, from the film’s perspective, for now you have known about it. But with the talent involved, and all the wattage they are capable of producing, implies that significance should also be attached to that knowledge.
And with that, the thinking “Can this be improved with another edit?” surfaces. It’s rather haunting, honestly. It might be one’s current war with this Current War…