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What say we unscrew the lid and see what happens?

The Current War
(2017)

(SPOILERS) If you didn’t know Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War had a turbulent history in the editing suite, you’d rapidly reach that conclusion from watching the film. Either that, or assume the director has no idea what he was doing. Aside from an aesthetically inadvisable penchant for low-angle, fish-eye framing, there’s scant design or coherence to Gomez-Rejon’s visual sense; we’re subjected to random cutting (and cutting randomly) from careful compositions to ones bereft of the same, regardless of the requirements of the scene or flow of the overall narrative. As a consequence, it says something for the fascination the Thomas Edison/ George Westinghouse story exerts – their competition for whose electrical system would win out and be adopted en masse – as told by Michal Mitnick that the film is even halfway watchable.

The Current War was first shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, apparently rushed for release, before Harvey Scissorhands announced it was being re-edited. Obviously, he since fell by the wayside and like The Upside, the picture was picked up by Lantern Entertainment (for international release). Weinstein, to put it mildly, was known for his strong-arm tactics with filmmakers, his advice (or diktats) occasionally improving movies, more often simply botching matters. It sounds like Gomez-Rejon ended up with what he wanted here in the end, though, thanks to the intervention of producer Martin Scorsese and a day of reshoots, adding five scenes but also managing to cut the running time by ten minutes… Except that the director’s version really feels like it’s been pared to the bone by a team of injudicious producers set on cutting their losses, often haring through scenes without finding time to breathe yet failing to create the – doubtless – intended sense of accompanying narrative urgency. It’s often closer to a passive, Cliff Notes account of these duelling AC/DC electrical systems.

Indeed, during the early part of The Current War, there’s a continuing problem with focus. And when focus isrecovered, it’s by way of the decision to frame this most significant of modern age advances (the advent of electrical power, available in every home) in the context of its most depraved side effect (its use in enforcing the death penalty). It may be factually accurate, but in emphasis, it translates as not a little hackneyed; can you have a clumsier metaphor for the amorality of scientific advance, particularly when Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) himself is pulled up for his hypocrisy (pronouncing he’d never use electricity for the purposes of war, he then goes all out to prove rival Westinghouse’s alternating current is deadly).

It’s curious that the Deadline piece cites areas of the early cut the director was dissatisfied with – principally “Edison came off as a narcissist and… Westinghouse too classy a gentleman to get in the mud with him” – since they’re also true of the released film. And I don’t know in what reading Edison can be called the hero of the piece (Bekamambetov below), as he’s consistently pig-headed and unwilling to listen to the advice of his devoted secretary (Tom Holland), or Tesla, and confesses unapologetically to his taking credit for the inventions of others.

Cumberbatch is fine, if bombastic and possessed of the usual iffy American accent. There are scenes that succeed in lifting Edison’s story, such as his wife’s brain tumour being misdiagnosed and the effect on him of her subsequent loss, that draw a less clumsy parallel (than execution) with her husband’s inability to recognise how his professional choices are off beam. The moment of grieving, when his son taps a message in Morse Code onto his father’s shoe and he taps one back is also resonant. And there’s a closing scene with Westinghouse where Edison describes the breakthrough of a longer-lasting filament that represents a tantalising acting showcase, where the wonder of such advances is fully captured, but such moments, due to the choppy nature of the proceedings, are few and far between.

There’s also the problem that Westinghouse and Tesla are simply more engaging characters. Michael Shannon gets a rare chance to play sympathetically, while Hoult steals the show as the mannered, precise eccentric Brainiac Tesla; I spent most of the time he was absent from the screen willing the picture to hurry up and get on to Westinghouse employing his services. Unfortunately, Nikola’s dreams of untold scientific advances are only briefly touched upon (a nod to wireless power and the Wardenclyffe Tower, besides the more concrete Niagara legacy).

It’s notable that Timur Bekmambetov had been interested in the telling the story from Tesla’s point of view but “I realised that Tesla wasn’t the hero, because he was a bit of a trickster. Edison was the great character here”. Which sounds a little like he thought it would be too much effort, since there’s a lot more murk and intrigue surrounding Tesla’s mercurial character, to a degree that invites criticism for engaging in anything leaning towards the conspiratorial interpretation of his work and inventions. The extent to which Tesla’s a trickster is the extent to which the biographer in any medium has to find a means of portraying him that tackles his more elusive and less mainstream scientific theories; much easier to push him to the fringes as an eccentric magician (The Prestige).

There’s a scrappy quality to The Current War that suggests Gomez-Rejon is putting a brave face on a disappointing project. But who knows, perhaps he’s genuinely proud of it; his directorial career has been patchy at best. Either way, the production values are very variable, with a soundtrack that is often murky, rendering conversations sometimes unclear. On the other hand, the score from Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran, while occasionally intrusively smothering, strives to add a unity and continuity lacking in the overall edit, lending The Current War an emotional and contemplative texture that is at times reminiscent of Philip Glass. With subject matter so ripe with potential, it’s a shame this ended up merely passably effective.


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