The Current War: Edison and Westinghouse fight over who’s AC and who’s DC

Can you feel the electricity? Photo courtesy of 101 Studios

Right on the heels of The Lighthouse comes another movie about a lightbulb that drives men to distraction. This one is about those old-fashioned filament bulbs that no hip restaurant or subdivision model home can resist (thanks for nothing, Restoration Hardware), and if you’re terribly interested in whether they work better with AC or DC current, The Current War is here to illuminate you.

Mansplaining for us are famed inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and American industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). DC, or direct current, is explained as going in one direction, while AC, or alternating current, ‘goes both ways’. With this premise and two manly actors, we know what’s coming, don’t we: Edison, the DC in the relationship, always has to be on top, and throws hissy fits when anyone suggests he be a little flexible. Westinghouse, who prefers alternating his current, is consequently more well-adjusted. 

The war starts when Westinghouse decides he wants to be on top more, which Edison is not having. So Edison begins a nasty smear campaign, attempting to shame Westinghouse over his current tastes. He claims Westinghouse’s AC ways are dangerous and will kill people who adopt it, and goes so far as electrocuting a horse with AC as a shock tactic for the press. If we didn’t think he was an a-hole before, this seals the deal. But ole Thomas Alva can’t invent his way out of karma, and right after murdering a horse to prove he’s right, the wife he’s always ignored up and dies herself. Let’s hope heaven isn’t lit with filament bulbs.

Nikola Tesla shows up as a Euro twink with a penchant for Willy Wonka’s wardrobe whom Edison and Westinghouse briefly fight over. The real reason he’s here, though, is so the trailer can make a timely joke and give the film a hint of relevance: when a financier fires Tesla from his eponymous company, he says to Nikola with a gleeful scowl, “Nothing will ever be named Tesla again.” Ha! Jokes on you, dickhead Victorian hedge-fund guy, we all chuckle. Until we try to get our Tesla serviced. Then we wish he was right.

With two excellent actors leading the film, there are enough moments when we diverge from the wonky stuff for an exploration of the character of powerful men. Icy Cumberbatch’s harsh portrayal of Edison – which history backs up – lays bare how much arrogance and ill-behavior capitalism tolerates for genius, the Ayn Randian conundrum that has only gotten more pronounced in the age of Silicon Valley. Shannon is smart casting as well. He brings a dark undercurrent with him to every screen appearance, which keeps Westinghouse from appearing too much the upstanding man-of-the-people figure he’s written to be. The man was a founding member of the group of American capitalists that subdued the world, after all, and the film goes way easy on him while it demonizes Edison, the intellectual purist vexed whenever his ideas were copied by opportunists.

Tom Holland is around to be a (cute) voice of reason as Edison’s assistant, but Doctor Strange never cared what Spider-Man had to say, so he should have known the same would apply here.

As this is a story about two tops battling for position, their wives are throw-away roles, which the movie makes clear by casting actresses that look exactly alike.

The Current War is what you’d call a ‘handsome’ production: well-written, acted, looks great, etc. It might have stood out more when it was originally set for release two years ago (it was a casualty of the Weinstein Company implosion), but this year, thanks to Netflix and Amazon’s money, there are so many big dicks swinging around that this feels overdressed in comparison, and just not electric enough.

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