A century before ‘AC/DC’ became the moniker of a certain Australian rock band, the acronym was synonymous with American pioneers George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison and their conflicting ideas for electricity distribution. While the former was keen to explore the potential of high voltage alternating currents, the latter continued to champion his preferred low voltage direct currents. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War retells the events of the battle between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) as they race to power America while competing with emerging Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
The war between Edison and Westinghouse was more than just a clash of electric currents; it involved collusion, smear campaigns, and questionable ethics. Edison believed that Westinghouse’s alternating currents were lethal to consumers, and went to extreme efforts to prove it. His claims were a contentious issue when the government came to decide which system should be used, as they found themselves having to prioritise either cost or safety. You would think it would be a no-brainer, but this is the government we’re talking about.
The film covers the entire ‘War of the Currents’, from the late 1880s to the early 1890s, as well as several years either side, but it is mostly well-paced. The story progresses rather quickly at times, which can make it hard to keep up, but this does exemplify the urgency of the race between Westinghouse and Edison. It doesn’t boast the most exciting plot, but what makes it captivating is how it tells the story. The film pushes the capabilities of cinematography and editing to the max by taking every opportunity to experiment with different angles and perspectives. In a single scene you might see shots oscillate between subjective and objective, high-angle and low-angle, with some birds-eye shots thrown in for good measure. Although these rapid changes are sometimes overwhelming and a bit jarring, they turn what could have been a bog-standard historical drama into something much more exciting.
The technical exploration doesn’t stop there, however. Gomez-Rejon uses time-lapse sequences to show the construction of the first electric chair, and split screens to cover all perspectives of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It’s fitting, really, that a film about revolutionary inventors should tell its story in such an inventive way.
If electrical currents don’t quite pique your interest, the film also offers some fascinating insights into Edison’s side projects, such as the invention of the phonograph and one of the world’s earliest motion picture exhibition devices, the Kinetoscope. These are only brief interludes in the film, but they prove that Edison’s career could best be summed up by the phrase “you win some, you lose some”.
The Current War is a visually enthralling historical drama that sometimes gets a bit lost in its cinematic experimentation, but its efforts are greatly commendable. It’s innovative like the pioneers it depicts, daring to take risks within a genre whose films can all too easily fall back on tried-and-tested tropes.
Directed by: Alfonso Gomex-Rejon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland
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