Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Current War – Edison and Westinghouse competing for the electric crown while Tesla looks on in poverty (UK and Irish cinemas from 26 July)

Set in the late 1800s, in a time of rail and gas, The Current War tells the story of two men who can’t stop themselves from competing in order to sit down and collaborate and solve the technical problems that frustrate their prototype electricity production systems.

One is an inventor, constantly noticing small details – often natural occurrences – and applying them to novel situations that have yet to spark the public’s imagination. The other knows about business, buying up patents and exploiting them for profit. Both men have character flaws that press in on their decision-making.

One is Thomas Edison who is credited with the invention of the lightbulb and widely remembered; the other is George Westinghouse who rolled out a/c power to cities across the US and little heard of. And thrown into the mix is Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla, who had amazing vision of how to create new technologies and to solve major problems they would one day encounter, and whose instincts about technological choices were sound … and died in poverty. Though the epitaph “there’s never going to be anything named Tesla ever again” was thankfully short-sighted.

First screened at autumn 2017 film festivals, The Current War went dark with the collapse of Harvey Weinstein’s reputation and the bankruptcy of his eponymous film studio. It’s finally being released in the UK and Ireland on 26 July 2019, but won’t hit US cinemas until 4 October. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon got the chance to add five scenes and cut ten minutes from the original festival release, though if an additional ten minutes had hit the projector room floor, I doubt the story protracted would have suffered.

The score helps build up the tension around the rivalry. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison as a maverick, distant from his close family and principled up to a point. Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse is upright and bold, disguising his financial peril with confidence as the pair square up to win the public prize of lighting up the Chicago World Fair. They finally meet near the end, squaring up in a suitably anti-climatic way for two fallen heroes. Tesla is allowed to morph from brilliant thinker to more manic in the capable hands of Nicholas Hoult.

Wives are ancillary to much of the story; two of Edison’s children, nicknamed Dot and Dash, add a playful Morse Code side plot that fizzles out. There’s a sense of favouritism when the filmmakers and Michael Mitnick’s script give Edison the last word of the film, a privilege I’d have preferred to have gone to more far-sighted Tesla.

The film begins with lurching camerawork that could induce seasickness as wide-angled lens shots pan around intricate sets before camera shots looking up at people’s chins follow them around rooms as if shot by school children. Later the visual style settles down and the director of photography Chung-hoon Chung contents himself with magnificent shots looking down on busy factories. And then split screen is introduced – quite effectively for the execution by electrocution scene – as another style.

The parallels with modern-day hard tech entrepreneurs with brains that work at remarkable rates and whose logic is hard to read is obvious. Private planes and helicopters have replaced private trains. Outrageous statements to the press are sometimes still swallowed and regurgitated. Legal dramas and nefarious underhand actions are still assumed to be commonplace.

It’s obvious that lots of license has been taken with historical events: there’s a three-year gap between the first electric chair and the Chicago World Fair, but it’s a nice plot device. The cinematography is hard work at times. But the rivalry feels rough and the rivals both play dirty. In summary, this film could have been much worse, but that’s not the kind of plaudit I expect to see lit up on posters.

Expect The Current War to dimly illuminate local cinemas from Friday 26 July.

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