It was a little over two years ago when The Current War initially premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It opened to a panning dismay, but the cut those initial festival audiences saw and distasted was far from the vision director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon intended, as the film was taken away from him by producer at the time Harvey Weinstein and edited without his approval. But when the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, collapsed due to the slew of sexual assault allegations against its co-founder, the aforementioned Harvey Weinstein, Gomez-Rejon was able to recut the film. But, at the same time, for awhile the film was in limbo, without a distributor. But after some additional shooting that added a few new scenes and a complete recut of the film, The Current War: Director’s Cut was created and picked up by 101 Studios. This new version not only finds a new way to streamline its narrative but also is six minutes shorter than the original runtime. And while I never saw that original Toronto cut, this version of The Current War is a very pleasant surprise, packed with nonstop voyaging energy.
It all begins in 1880 where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has finally perfected his lightbulb and has plans to illuminate cities across the country using direct current (or DC), which requires a heavy investment due to putting copper wires and generators underground. Rival businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes the future is alternating current (or AC), which is more powerful, cheaper and can cover greater range, which is beneficial to a country like the United States, which has large rural areas. Westinghouse hopes that there might be a partnership where Edison supplies the bulbs and he provides the power, but Edison refuses to surrender any ground, setting up a battle throughout the remainder of the 19th century over who will get to power the future.
Once the film gets its engine roaring on the central business conflict, everything else starts to fall into place. That including its side plotlines. We meet futurist and inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), whose thematic role in the film is hefty (something I heard the older cut struggled with), and only becomes clearer as the movie shows that Westinghouse’s best-product-wins belief is the past, Edison’s duplicity is the future, and simply being the most intelligent person in the room like Telsa is no defense against these business interests. Among the other notable side plotlines and characters include Westinghouse’s wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterson), J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), Edison’s wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton) and Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), Edison’s personal secretary. They and other famous figures pop in and out as Michael Mitnick’s script moves to its finale, where the two adversaries arrive at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Gomez-Rejon, who previously made the much more conventional Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, directs The Current War with lavish pageantry, it’s stronger on sumptuousness than history, thematic weight than straight facts. As fitting with a tale of light, this movie glistens. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s often off-kilter camera spins, skews and glides as it chases gleams of sunlight through deep shadow, all captured in wide anamorphic lenses (his work here is some of the year’s best). The mix of Chung’s electrifying work, Gomez-Rejon’s rich handheld camera, the snappy cutting, the split-screen work and the electronic and string melded score, The Current War‘s overall aesthetic is striking and affecting. From a performance standpoint, Cumberbatch cleverly embodies the ambitious Edison, who’s not above sacrificing a few pesky morals for success, nor using his fame to manipulate the media. (A scene where he first lights up a section of Manhattan is beautifully bold.) Shannon, on the other side, is restrained yet charismatic in a role that could have easily been overplayed.
The Current War: Director’s Cut is a film that could very easily been a stodgy, everyday period piece. But Gomez-Rejon takes the material at hand and makes it consistently engaging with an up-tempo, kinetic pace and delivers a compelling historical drama. It asks questions about the future and mankind’s struggle to get there, about the consequences and responsibilities of technology and creativity (when you get the light bulb you also get the electric chair). And sure, it has its underdeveloped elements (particularly the home-life of Edison), but it also has so many others that shine at their brightest, never blinding only enrapturing. Brought to life with a sumptuously lucid visual language by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, The Current War: Director’s Cut is a kinetic study on the costs of technology and the grapplings of the rushing future.