The Current War – Toronto Film Review

The Current War is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s historical drama shedding some light on the late 19th-century battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to control the power grid. The film is a stylised, well-flowing narrative of a conflict that many today might be unaware of.

As a semi-detached, highly-intelligent portrayal of Edison, Benedict Cumberbatch is right at home. A historian would be able to judge better than I on whether the Edison of the film is a true depiction, but as a character he’s believable. The film avoids a problem that some of Cumberbatch’s previous quick-witted characters had: it doesn’t over exaggerate Edison’s genius. He’s not above and beyond, the most clever man on the screen. This added a touch of humanness that made him likeable, despite his conniving efforts to discredit Westinghouse. Cumberbatch devotes himself in front of the camera to the man he’s playing and owns it, which comes as no surprise.

As Westinghouse, Michael Shannon is an adversary worthy of Edison. However, he is not an antagonist in any form. He claims the title of protagonist just as equally as Cumberbatch does, and makes a stunning performance of it. The only problem I had with Westinghouse’s portrayal comes not from Shannon but from the script. Westinghouse comes off far too often not as a rival besting the “The Wizard of Menlo Park” by taking the moral high ground, but as an Edison fangirl trying to win the attention of his idol.

Another performance of note is Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla. Most modern audiences, without doing any research, would point to Tesla if asked who Edison’s main rival was. Naturally, I was quite interested to see the role he would play. Hoult carried his own in scenes with Cumberbatch and Shannon, but again, I feel that the writing left something missing from him. His character and his defection from Edison to Westinghouse felt a bit third wheel. I’m looking forward to watching his deleted scenes.

Visually, The Current War makes no apology about its somewhat artificial look and feel. The cinematography makes extremely heavy use of Dutch angles and tracking shots toward the beginning of the film. Was this the best choice? The late 19th century before widespread electrification was a world that none of us today can imagine ( the viewer sitting near me who kept turning her phone on certainly seemed attached to her electronics). Such cinematography made me all too aware of the camera, and the technology of today. However, some inspired visual decisions were made throughout the film. One of note is a striking, disturbing point-of-view shot of a minor character suffering electrocution. The editing on the film was also well done, particularly the juxtaposition of a Civil War flashback and the bid between the two inventors to light the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. At first the flashback seems random and unrelated, but it all comes together and the audience finds out what happens when you think you have the drop on Westinghouse—both figuratively and literally.

As someone who has had prior knowledge of what was called the “War of Currents”, I could follow the story quite easily. I knew what the stakes were and why this conflict happened. But I wonder what the average filmgoer who has not read up on this interesting bit of history would think. Minimal exposition is usually a strength in a film, but in The Current War I wouldn’t have minded a bit more explanation. The difference between alternating current and direct current, and why Edison’s campaign against AC power was unwarranted, are a bit rushed and dare I say glossed over. To the layman, electricity is electricity. What’s the difference? To have a war of currents in the first place, we should know.

All in all, The Current War is worth seeing. It could easily be a hit or miss, however, and we’ll just have to wait and see how a mainstream audience reacts. But Cumberbatch does not disappoint, and he’s supported by a brilliant cast. When all of the lights in the cinema illuminated during the credits, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the moment the film was leading up to. That’s when I truly appreciated the imagination of these historical figures. It’s wonderful that this story has been told on screen.

Gabrielle Gozo (Twitter: @gabriellegozo) is a filmmaker and designer.