When you expect a “race to create the modern world” one expects either a drawn-out sprint or a condensed marathon, not a relay. This film is exactly that, a relay race, a relay race of subplots and minor characters. And due to that, it can never quite find its genre, or pace. The sparks don’t fly.
The Current War is the [either largely fictitious or largely boring] story of two men, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the perhaps best well-known American inventor and businessman, and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), the lesser known direct competitor of Thomas Edison. Shannon gives an understated and emotional performance, one that cannot be ignored; Cumberbatch’s performance, on the other hand, while generally good, is ill-humorously self-deprecating due to performing his signature, but heavily overused ‘tortured genius’ routine. Cumberbatch’s American accent is perhaps one of the most irritating in modern cinema, it is sporadic, lacking charm, and for some reason, somewhat effeminate.
At this point you may be wondering why Nicola Tesla (Nicolas Hoult) has not been mentioned. As it turns out, despite being in the middle-ground of the poster, he is a complete afterthought. After a short spell of Hoult in the first act you are left wondering whether he’s done with for the rest of the film because it is not until later in the third act that he returns, but again only for a short-while. Hoult’s acting in The Current War is forgettable and lacklustre, his reputation for 2019 is saved only by his professional and striking performance in Tolkien.
The director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is able to capture the shots of Cumberbatch, Shannon, and Hoult surprisingly well, sometimes, and there are even a couple brilliant scenes. Unfortunately, many will find that this is overshadowed by the more common poor cinematography – the stain eclipses the clean. Our disappointment not only follows from the touch-and-go cinematography, but also the touch-and-go writing and plot-telling. We’re left thinking that the philosophy of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is “that will do”, everything is “that will do”, there is no greater yearning to want to create a masterpiece, not that film would be one, but it’s better to at least try.
It is clear that I have not yet spoken of the plot, I wish I didn’t have to. I’m not sure how many plots and subplots there were. It’s not clear whether the irregular editing was the inevitable symptom of the unduly numerous subplots or just down to a poor production team. However, the plot follows Edison and Westinghouse, and their respective DC and AC currents, in their competition to electrify America, and “create the modern world”. We follow their arcs over several years between the early 1880s and mid-1890s, as well as the arcs of their close compatriots, and the influence they hold over them. Within this seemingly short timespan we are greeted with such noticeable events as the invention of the electric chair, and the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago.
Anyone who takes a personal interest in Nicola Tesla or Cumberbatch will find themselves entertained yet often still looking at their watch throughout this film, enjoying themselves but wondering how you’re only half an hour into a 108-minute flick and it feeling as though they’re at least an hour in. If you don’t possess these personal interests in Tesla or Cumberbatch, it’s likely you will exit the screen thinking “eh, it was alright” and nothing more.