“The Current War” is a fascinating story, badly told. A casualty of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has languished on the shelf for two years, this historical saga about the birth of electricity — and the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse — isn’t nearly as illuminating as it should be, despite a cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon.
The film’s release is being billed as its “Director’s Cut,” but cutting — and editing — is a big part of the problem. As constructed by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (from a script by Michael Mitnick), the scenes are so short and choppy — it’s as if there’s a 30-second limit on them — as to undermine the performances, making the high-wattage actors looking little more than the players in dramatic reenactments on some National Geographic special.
It’s a shame, since the subject matter has so much going for it, kicking off in 1880 — when Edison (Cumberbatch) registered his first incandescent-bulb patent — and extending through the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
In between, Edison and Westinghouse waged a brutal battle for supremacy, with the former — angered by his belief that the industrialist was essentially pirating his creation — using his celebrity inventor status to smear the latter’s tech as dangerous and harmful.
Unconcerned about money, Edison still needed a lot of it, securing backing from financier J.P. Morgan (“Succession’s” Matthew Macfadyen), while Westinghouse eventually finds his own genius in the visionary Nikolai Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
Despite the inevitable creative liberties, it’s a generally faithful retelling of events. “Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland, meanwhile, plays Edison’s assistant, who keeps trying to save him from his own worst impulses, asking his boss if he wants to be remembered as P.T. Barnum or Isaac Newton. That means the producers have a couple of Avengers to help lead them into battle, alas, to little avail.
Capturing Edison and Tesla’s creative genius poses a formidable challenge, but the bare-knuckled corporate brawling should be a lot more fun than it is. Instead, the story detours too heavily into the use of electricity as a means of execution, a strand with lingering relevance that nevertheless plays here like a distraction.
Near the end, Westinghouse and Edison engage in a quiet conversation that provides a taste of what “The Current War” might have been, but it’s too late to salvage the film (which counts Martin Scorsese among its producers), despite Gomez-Rejon expressing hope that he hoped the long-delayed release would create “a happy ending” for those who worked on it.
While it’s interesting reading the closing crawls regarding what happened to the key characters, by then, frankly, the lights in the theater can’t come on soon enough.
“The Current War: Director’s Cut” premieres Oct. 25 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.