‘The Current War’ Director’s Cut is Pretty Much the Same as the Original
A bright idea that delivers more heat than illumination, The Current War: Director’s Cut traffics in sensation and sizzle. Insight, not so much. But what a gorgeous ride. It’s a hyperventilating look at a fascinating moment in innovation, when Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) competed to establish America’s power grid. Edison championed short-range direct current, which was very reliable and worked at a low, non-lethal voltage. The only hitch: it could barely service one square mile. Westinghouse preferred high-wattage alternating current, which traveled much further distances and was cheaper to install. One problem: if mishandled, it was deadly.
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Michael Mitnick
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Katherine Waterson, Tom Holland, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Hoult
Running time: 107 min
The film feverishly milks this “less filling/tastes great” dichotomy for all it’s worth, which is, frankly, not a lot. As Westinghouse himself says, “it’s not my electricity. It’s electricity.” Exactly. The Current War: Director’s Cut is essentially about the optimal delivery system for a foundational utility. Sexy, right? As a parable about capitalism, the story plays like a brisk case study from the Harvard Business School. We might as well be talking about the VCR battles of the early ’80s, when Sony jealously guarded its superior but more expensive Betamax system and JVC happily licensed its cheaper, eventually ubiquitous VHS standard. Intriguing? Yes. Riveting? Not really.
A human story ostensibly drives this clash of the titans, and it involves outsized legends Edison and Westinghouse, plus otherworldly Serb immigrant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his screenwriter Michael Mitnick lean too heavily on the respective cults of personality. Edison is the Wizard of Menlo Park, Tesla is the mystical “futurist,” Westinghouse is the poker-faced millionaire industrialist that one paper deems a “Generous Gentleman.” They’re all brilliant, they’re all noble, and they each have minor flaws. Edison lets his zeal for public safety lead to devious schemes. Westinghouse can seem aloof. Tesla is obsessive-compulsive about everything from his natty attire and fastidious furnishings to his “all-in-my-mind” blueprints for modernity. And that’s it, in terms of character development. They’re just hard-driving geniuses hell-bent on making the world a better place.
The Current War: Director’s Cut doesn’t really delve deeper. There’s a half-hearted attempt to humanize Edison by showing his interaction with wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) and kids Dot and Dash, so named after the Morse Code messages Edison uses to communicate secretly with them. But when Mary dies early on, all that family life falls away and the kids basically disappear. Westinghouse meanwhile confides in dutiful wife Marguerite Walker (Katherine Waterson), who looks pretty and acts strong but otherwise has little to do.
This is the kind of movie where exasperated characters exclaim “It’s just not ready yet!” and inventors tussle with investors. “It’s not currents, It’s currency,” hisses a steampunk venture capitalist. Money bad, visionaries good. Got it.
Although fundamentally unmoored from any compelling human conflict, the film is still an absolutely sumptuous production, with handsome costumes, opulent sets, and luxurious cinematography. Sure, Gomez-Rejon is a bit too enamored of Dutch angles and fish-eye lenses, giving the whole film a funhouse freneticism that feels like overcompensation for the story’s anemic emotions. But the otherwise visceral evocation of its late-19th-century period setting is a transporting thrill.
A word about the film’s defensive-crouch title. The Current War: Director’s Cut is a revised version of The Current War, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 to mixed reviews. The film was subsequently shelved in the collateral-damage fallout after the #MeToo movement torpedoed original distributor The Weinstein Company. Gomez-Rejon claimed that Weinstein rushed the film’s completion to make its Toronto debut. Executive producer Martin Scorsese then exercised a “final cut” contract clause that allowed the director more time and money to do reshoots and finish on his own terms.
“We’ve made so many changes to the film that make it completely different,” claim the film’s new distributor, 101 Studios. Apparently Gomez-Rejon trimmed many scenes and added five more. Oddly, this 107-minute director’s cut still has exactly the same running time as the 2017 cut. I saw that original film at Toronto and cannot for the life of me tell the difference between the two. I’m sure there are changes. I’m also sure they didn’t really improve the film very much. Both versions burned brightly, and both still left me in the dark.