The Current War: Movie Review

The Current War, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, is a well-written visual feast for geeks, scientists, steampunks and lovers of historical drama. Veronica McLaughlin files this review.

While there’s no dearth of flicks out there for sci-fi fans, it’s rare to come across a (reasonably) big budget flick made for geeks. People who love maths and physics and tinkering with complex equations. People who were assigned problems 1-5 for maths homework, but did 1-12 because they were so much fun. You know who you are. This one’s for you!

The Current War centres on three of the biggest geeks of all time – Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) – all emerging in the 1880’s, betting everything on the one thing our entire modern world depends on – electricity. One might think that such great minds would get together and come up with the best, most cost-efficient and safest way to generate and distribute this earth shattering technology. But one would be completely wrong, because great genius is often accompanied by great, and frequently fragile, ego. And of course, regardless of ego-volume and greatness of genius – research and development, purchase and filing of patents, and paying the rent was dependent on currency – funding provided in large part by J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen).

Photo: Dean Rogers

Edison, born in 1847, had been home schooled and took several chemistry papers at the free Cooper Union in New York. By 1880 he was a celebrity, with hundreds of inventions and related patents for the phonograph, telephone and telegraph improvements and the incandescent light bulb. He was determined to light up with world, powered by direct current (DC). (Think battery power as opposed to plugging a device into the wall.) He also had a reputation as a showman and braggart; a hard-driving employer who paid little and took full credit for his employees’ work; and a man who neglected his family.

Photo: Dean Rogers

Westinghouse, born in 1846, also had limited education, enlisting in the armed forces at 15, and at the end of the American Civil War attended university for one term. His first major invention was a rotary steam engine at 19, followed by a railroad braking system using compressed air at 22. In his forties he turned his attention to electricity distribution, after Edison had had some success electrifying part of lower Manhattan with his DC system. But that system could only distribute electricity for about a mile, requiring dozens of substations to electrify an entire city, completely impractical for rural areas. He had a reputation as a man of integrity who was generous to his employees, including instituting a 5 1/2 day work week, instead of the customary 6 day week.

Tesla, youngest of the three, was born in 1856, in Croatia. He finished high school and two years of university, but in his third year, having gambled away his tuition and allowance, he was unable to return. After working in Europe for several years, he emigrated to the US in 1884 and went to work for Edison. Things did not go well and he left to form his own electrical company, inventing an induction motor that allowed alternating current (AC) to be safely used to distribute electricity over long distances. But he was a better inventor than businessman and ending up losing his company to his financiers. He then partnered with Westinghouse, who recognised that Tesla’s inventions would make his AC distribution system cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s.

The Current War
Photo: Dean Rogers

And so began ‘the war of currents,’ a propaganda campaign instigated by Edison to discredit Westinghouse and DC. The extreme lengths he was willing to go, and to compromise his own values in order to win this war are detailed in The Current War.

These are the facts, but as this is a Hollywood movie, these facts are embellished and re-imagined, including personal relationships and moments of personal torment, little of which can be substantiated, but nonetheless provide an interesting framework for what might otherwise be a rather dry tale. Edison and Westinghouse were married and had children. Tesla was a dreamer who resented having to create physical versions of the inventions lodged in his brain.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon with executive producer Martin Scorsese, this movie is a visual feast! The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, is epic with numerous wide angle overhead shots swooping into factory floors, zooming past honey-coloured machines that are works of art. Crowds gathered on dark streets are suddenly bathed in the warm glow of incandescent light.

Michael Mitnick’s script is full of sharp-witted dialogue, laced with biting humour (There will never be anything called Tesla ever again!) And while one doesn’t need an advanced engineering degree to understand what the protagonists are talking about, neither does he shy away from the actual science involved.

Edison and Westinghouse are the main focus of the film, with Tesla, once again, given short shrift. But to be honest, Tesla’s life is worthy of its own big budget flick. Obsessed with his work, plagued with poor physical and mental health and suffering from a gambling addiction, his character was too big to fit into a two hour flick telling a larger story.

Cumberbatch, Shannon and Hoult are well suited to their roles, clearly having fun with their larger than life characters as do Matthew Macfadyen as J.P. Morgan and Tom Holland as Edison’s long-suffering assistant Samuel. But the lesser characters, wives, employees, children and power-brokers are little more than window-dressing – which is perhaps how Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla saw them.

I found myself pondering the rather incredible parallels to the creators behind the next pervasive technological revolution – the personal computer. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates left university to pursue their dreams. And the war between the Microsoft and Apple in the 80s was eerily similar at times to the currents war.

If you’re looking for an action flick or rom-com, this isn’t for you. But if you like a good historical drama, dabble in steampunk, or have kids who love science, The Current War might be the best two hours of your week. It opens on the 27th of February.

~Veronica McLaughlin