B - 81%
“The Current War” just out in theaters October 24th endeavors to spin the tale of how Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse competed to build the electricity grid across America and eventually, bring electricity into every home. It highlights the capitalism of the time, the rise of the men we would later call ‘Robber Barons’ and the dirty politics suffused in the name of progress. It is America after the Civil War. It is big cities and industry and a giant leap in the standard of living of millions of Americans. And perhaps most of all, it is complicated.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison with what one might categorize as one of the most accurate American English accents ever performed. Unfortunately, I found myself thinking, “Wow, you would never know he’s British!” for most of the film. Which is to say, I was not caught up in his performance, rather, I was just impressed by his technique.
Michael Shannon plays Westinghouse and is more believable in the role. That might be because his character is just more likable and therefore easier to relate to. He plays a man with personal integrity, whose belief in honor among men and in one’s deeds costs him in his business at times, and personally at others. His initial refusal to stoop to Thomas Edison’s tactics in order to win contracts with cities across the country esteems him to us. Although Thomas Edison plays dirty in the newspapers, concocts lies in which to smear Westinghouse and thus gain an advantage in the market, he is met with strong resistance from Westinghouse and the financial power of his own company. Edison must gain backing from financier JP Morgan and finds himself constantly negotiating for more.
The film portrays the war between the two men as a war about ideas, that of direct current versus alternating current. Because we already know which electrical current we use today (pretty much), the film must focus not on who wins but how they win.
“The Current War” touches on the personal lives of both men, the competition for patents, the reasons for the hard feelings between the two men (Edison blamed Westinghouse for ‘stealing’ the patent for his light bulb), all of which are important details in this story. Unfortunately, they feel crammed into the relatively short time of a film and one feels as if there are a list of important facts on which we should have been taking notes.
When Nikola Tesla enters the story we know we’re in for an interesting ride and Nicholas Hoult playing Tesla does not disappoint. However, while we learn the story of how Tesla came to work for Edison and later Westinghouse, we also learn about his taste for beautiful clothes and other fine things, his ability to build intricate machines in his mind, to extract perfection out of almost everything he did. His idiosyncrasies make him more interesting than either of the other two men and his legacy much more prolific.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is that it focuses on the wrong war. Yes, the story of how two men and thus two gigantic companies, Edison General Electric (later just General Electric) and Westinghouse came to control electricity in America is interesting. But even more important and salient, is how the idea of free electricity for all the world was stolen from us by these men, most importantly JP Morgan, for their own profit and the status quo of the Capitalist system.
Scientist and futurist, Nikola Tesla envisioned and designed a machine which would provide wireless power to anywhere on earth, virtually free. He began building this machine with JP Morgan’s money and was nearly finished when Morgan found out the truth of what he was building and shut it down. This story, this is the story we should be talking about! The designs are still available, why don’t we explore in film what could be in real life an even bigger leap for mankind than the electricity of the 20th century. It’s theme, “Profit versus Purpose”. Not a bad idea!