Our theme for the month of October is “This Month in History.”

Released theatrically on October 4th, 2019 after years of studio upset and festival disappointment, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War is a film whose primary appeal has everything to do with names. Gomez-Rejon’s historical drama is preoccupied not only with the so-called “War of Currents” between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to provide electricity to American cities in the late 19th century, but also with the shocking slew of celebrity starpower attached to it. Produced by Martin Scorsese and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon as Edison and Westinghouse respectively, The Current War fills even the smallest corners of itself with familiar people: Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla, Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, and Matthew Macfayden as J.P. Morgan. 

And yet, for all of its electric starpower, The Current War cannot overcome two obstacles, one of casting decisions and one of unfortunate timing. After completing production in 2017, the film was rushed through post-production after an unfinished cut was submitted and subsequently selected to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The festival release they scraped together was received with near universal disappointment, leaving Gomez-Rejon scrambling to reassemble the film for a theatrical release, relying on a Final Cut provision in Scorsese’s contract to circumvent the studio. Concurrently, in fall of 2017 that same studio, the Weinstein Company, crumbled after allegations of widespread, long-standing sexual misconduct emerged. This led to two years of fundraising, studio dealings and behind-the-scenes reworking before Gomez-Rejon’s Director’s Cut of The Current War finally reached theaters to try and repair its original failure among critics.

And while the Director’s Cut of The Current War comes with a visual flare, high-powered cast and overall direction that has everything it needs to light up the screen, it seems something has shorted in its circuitry. A passable script is left to be carried by some of the best actors we know, with God’s gift to cinema Michael Shannon and the usual brooding dramaturgy of Benedict Cumberbatch managing to dial-up what would be flat historical representations to near-human characters. However, this is complicated by the permanent man-childness of Hoult and Holland, their ridiculous hair and predictable lack of screen presence leaving us to take their genius exclusively on the recommendation of other characters. These variations in performance make it difficult to produce an emotional charge of any kind, even as the two leads manage to ground the film enough for viewers to at least buy into the story, even if they are unable to infuse its source material with enough electricity for it to be anything more than merely interesting.

This is especially disappointing when considering just how visually intriguing this film really is: canted angles, expressive lighting, and even emulations of early film reels enrich the cinematography, creating a story world that is not just interesting, but historically expressive. For the battle to light America to be portrayed with shadows, lens flares or colors of light to great dramatic effect feels almost too formulaic, but its masterful use here elevates it from technically obvious to affectively essential. And for a film largely centering on Thomas Edison (indeed, he seems to be the primary of the two protagonists) to, at times, intentionally take on the form of a celluloid film reel calls ahead to what may be, in reality, his company’s most important contribution to history. 

So while The Current War manages to craft its mundane writing into something narratively engaging, visually expressive, and at times deeply insightful about its two leads, instabilities in casting mean that whatever energy lingers within the workings of this film leaks out, leaving what could have been its peak moments to carry the movie. Though this confluence of factors left this reviewer feeling largely unimpressed as it attempted to reach for a finale, it is difficult to find oneself unimpressed by the film humming within this film—one that unfortunately may have been lost in two years of studio bureaucracy and post-production reassembly. While The Current War: Director’s Cut is not enough to fully redeem the film’s original reputation, nor is it able to overcome some of its dimmer qualities, there are enough moments that spark with humanity or poignance framed by imaginative visuals to occasionally create instances of light. 

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