Rating: (2 stars)
As “The Current War” hits theaters, it comes with a little red flag attached to its title: “Director’s Cut,” suggesting — somewhat mysteriously, to the average viewer, who probably never heard of the film before now — a hidden backstory. In 2017, when the prestige drama about the rivalry between inventor Thomas Edison, industrialist George Westinghouse and visionary engineer Nikola Tesla premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was met by lukewarm to negative reviews. It subsequently fell into limbo when the Weinstein Company, which owned the movie, was derailed in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its co-founder, Harvey Weinstein. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) complained at the time that pressure from Weinstein himself to rush its release contributed to a botched product.
But the world has not exactly been waiting with bated breath for the film’s flaws to be fixed, and for it to find a new distributor. What’s more, as the newly minted 101 Studios sends it out into the world — just as awards season heats up — the question remains: Have they been fixed?
Judging by two-year-old reviews from Toronto, many of the original criticisms of the film still apply to the new version, which lays out a fascinating but flawed-in-the telling account of the struggle to establish an industry standard for building America’s fledgling electrical infrastructure. Opening in 1880 and continuing into the 1890s, the film follows the competition between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who favored the safer but less efficient direct current, and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), a proponent of the cheaper — but potentially more lethal — alternating current. Caught in the middle is the brilliant Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who starts off working for the Wizard of Menlo Park, as Edison was known, but eventually defects to Team Westinghouse.
Some may find Tesla’s story perplexingly sparse, and find themselves wishing there were a whole other movie about him alone.
The details of the larger narrative — and the contrast between the personalities of the workaholic, stubbornly contrarian oddball Edison and the more pragmatic, even opportunistic, Westinghouse — make for an inherently compelling scientific thriller. Interesting historical tidbits abound, such as the efforts of both men to tar each other, by association, with the electric chair, a newfangled, and controversial, form of execution to which both men had connections. In one scene, Edison kills a horse in front of reporters to prove the dangers of alternating current in everyday life. He calls getting electrocuted being “Westinghoused.”
But the film is marred by Gomez-Rejon’s overreliance on cinematic gimmicks to gin up the natural suspense, including an intrusive score (by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran) that unnecessarily pumps up tension by imitating the staccato rhythms of a telegraph (a technology Edison improved on, uncoincidentally). Distracting visual tricks include showy overhead shots and weirdly spooky underlighting that sometimes makes the characters look like they’re in a horror flick.
The main problem, despite committed and at times vivid performances by the three main actors — and a mostly perfunctory supporting appearance by Tom Holland as Edison’s loyal assistant Samuel Insull — is the sheer amount of information that the movie tries to convey. Michael Mitnick’s screenplay shovels so many facts into the furnace of the film that it often feels like a string of too many, too-short vignettes, fueling a cinematic engine that chugs along in a race to cover all the necessary ground, while ignoring the scenery. (Unsurprisingly, the film features several shots of speeding trains.)
Mostly, “The Current War” plays like an article in a scientific magazine — packed with nuggets of data but mostly devoid of psychological insight. When Westinghouse cajoles his rival to do the right thing by telling him, with a tone of frustration, “This is about showing what kind of a man Thomas Edison is,” you may understand his discontent.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence and mature thematic elements. 101 minutes.