The Current War–Great cinematography, script, and top genre cast make for a fun trip to the past

Review by C.J. Bunce

The 21st century contest was whether The Current War or The New Mutants was going to be delayed longest before their inevitable release (The Current War for the Weinstein scandal and The New Mutants for the Disney-Fox merger and now the COVID-19 pandemic), and so The New Mutants wins–or loses–still with no release date.  At least The Current War–technically The Current War: Director’s Cut, was worth the wait.  Particularly if you put aside the inevitable choices in historical interpretations of the real-life historical figures and facts involved and instead marvel at the nicely realized cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (Hotel Artemis), production design by Jan Roelfs (Gattaca, 47 Ronin, Ghost in the Shell), costumes by Michael Wilkinson (Justice League, Tron: Legacy, Watchmen), snappy writing and pacing thanks to Michael Mitnick, and a fantastic cast of familiar genre actors, adding The Current War to your streaming list is an easy choice.

It was the 19th century struggle for the supremacy of electricity, pitting Thomas Alva Edison against George Westinghouse.  The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange, Sherlock, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit) as Edison, the famous Wizard of Menlo Park, opposite Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Midnight Special, Man of Steel) as Westinghouse, and Nicholas Hoult (X-Men series, Mad Max: Fury Road) as struggling inventor Nikola Tesla.  Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and written by Michael Mitnick, with Martin Scorsese as executive producer, The Current War will appeal to fans of Cumberbatch’s past work, particularly the similarly paced historical film, The Imitation Game. 

Cumberbatch’s Edison is a combination of many of the actor’s most famous characters–arrogant, smart, and flawed–and he is well pitted against the cool, measured, thoughtful bent on Westinghouse portrayed by Shannon.  Each lead character relies on an interesting confidante, Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home, Spies in Disguise) as Samuel Insull for Edison, and Stanley Townsend (Zen, Sherlock, Ashes to Ashes, Galavant) as Franklin Pope for Westinghouse.  Their wives don’t have much opportunity to do much but dote on them, a bit of a waste of talent like Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts, Inherent Vice, Alien: Covenant) and Tuppence Middleton (Electric Dreams, Black Mirror, The Lady Vanishes).  So much time is spent on the battle between Edison and Westinghouse that Hoult’s layered performance as Tesla is also underutilized.

The less you know, the more interesting–and more successful–you’ll find the script, which makes this a good selection for the younger set or anyone with an interest in inventions and the history of technology.  Excepting a segment on animal tests (killing a horse and discussions of even more), the film should appeal to most audiences.  One of the best features is a parallel backstory for Westinghouse involving his past as a Union soldier in the Civil War.

The film was originally scheduled for release on December 12, 2017, but then it was changed to November 24, 2018, and it seemed to be on an indefinite delay.  The hesitation purportedly wasn’t for reasons of the film’s content, the frequent cause of many delayed films being re-edited or re-tooled at the last minute.  This film hails from The Weinstein Company, and like many projects from that studio, distribution was disrupted because of owner Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment scandal.  All told the delays are estimated to have resulted in theater returns of only a little more than one-third of its costs.  It received a film festival release in 2017, but was unfortunately overlooked by major awards–Shannon’s performance in particular was worthy of consideration.  It briefly saw a run in theaters late last year before finally arriving on home video.

A solid costume drama with good writing and cast, The Current War–Director’s Cut is available here at Amazon on Blu-ray, and it’s streaming now on Vudu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

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