THE CURRENT WAR: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is an elegantly realized intellectual thriller which considers not only the eternal struggle between art and commerce, but also the effect of personalities on inventing the future. In this case, three visionaries, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla. Each with a particular kind of genius, each with idiosyncrasies that helped and hindered them in their race to light up the world with electricity.
It is a carefully reconstructed late 19th century to which we are transported with Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison on the prowl for more fame, by arrogantly cajoling J.P. Morgan (Matthew MacFayden) with promises of even more riches in his dream of electrifying the nation. Literally and figuratively. He’s also snubbing a dinner invitation from Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), a laconic man with a nimble mind and a talent for turning his engineering prowess into practical, if unglamorous, devices such as air brakes. Comparisons and contrasts are the order of the day, with Edison’s flair for showmanship coming off as vainglorious, even a moral failing of sorts when contrasted with Westinghouse’s preference for leaving a legacy that will make the world a better place. Think of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The filmmakers certainly want you to.
Kevin Mitnick’s scathingly literate script makes the story achingly personal, while Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s visually arresting direction, and art direction as sumptuous as is the thespian display. It adds the deeply satisfying mythic dimension as the camera swoops from on high, while also catching the all too human details of each man and those in their orbit. The specifics of AC versus DC, the heart of the argument between Edison and Westinghouse are explained without resort to jargon, nor to dumbing down the concepts. In the end, though, it’s less about dynamos and wiring than it is about what drove each man to prevail, or not, on their own terms, with the cautionary tale of Tesla. Played with subtle, even endearing, eccentricity by Nicholas Hoult, he is a man with visionary ideas that outstripped any from either Edison or Westinghouse, but cursed with neither business sense, nor the talent for making those ideas accessible to investors.
Cumberbatch is a wonderfully tortured, calculatingly charismatic Edison. Obsessively listening to a recording of his beloved late wife’s voice (Tuppence Middleton) while being equally obsessive about producing innovations and inventions with factory-like volume. His ego grates on the viewer, as does the moral certitude that finds itself being chipped away as ambition, and fears for his reputation, consume him. Shannon has the least showy of the three roles as the self-effacing industrialist more interested in progress than acclaim. Still, there the palpable expression of deep-seated feelings that drive him just as obsessively, if less dramatically, both in the relationship with his wife and partner, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) and in his penchant for speaking with succinct bluntness. Hoult eschews the easy caricature of Tesla without sacrificing the endlessly fascinating quirks as he tempers Tesla’s own enthusiasm for the inventions that exist only in him mind with the genuine inability to understand why others can’t comprehend them. When Edison puta out a hand for him to shake, the dread coupled with the resignation that he must grasp the great man’s hand despite his dislike of human contact is distinct, but not overplayed. Later, when in dire straits that have left him hustling pool and digging ditches, Hoult makes perfectly reasonable that Tesla would become distracted by his hotel room being two degrees of kilter when Westinghouse calls offering him a financial windfall.
THE CURRENT WAR: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT has an episodic but flowing narrative. Years pass swiftly, presenting a story that is lean and perfectly edited for impact and clarity. Beautiful, provocative, and above all, ahem, illuminating on many levels.