There is a scene at the start of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s The Current War where George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) has arranged to meet Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Edison is renowned for his inventions, and Westinghouse is keen to meet him, but Edison abruptly cancels the arrangement. It serves as the turning point for what follows through the 1880s as the pair compete against each other to create the first electrical power system.
Edison believes that his direct-current system is the only way, whereas Westinghouse claims his alternating current system is better and more cost-effective. However, Edison attempts to smear his rival’s name, stating that because of its high voltage alternating current can and will kill people. Rather than be infuriated by Edison’s continuous attempts to defame him, Westinghouse perseveres in trying to create an electrical power system.
The Current War briskly skims over events that transpire over an entire decade. A majority of the scenes are incredibly short and promptly flow into the next, confusing the audience and giving them little time to digest the action.
The score is a mixture of orchestral and electronic motifs from Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka that further impose the hurried pace. It is an unusual soundtrack that sometimes has the two contrasting genres simultaneously merge. It serves as a driving force for the film as the two inventors compete to establish their pioneering achievements. At times it works similarly to how Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch‘s score does in The Social Network. However, at other times, it is out of place and does not quite fit with the period setting.
As with many period dramas, the costumes and production design stand out, and many of the early scenes have the cast enclosed in darkness, with only candles providing light. It gives the audience a representation of what the world was like before electric lighting and a greater understanding of how we rely on it.
The cast all give natural performances. Cumberbatch’s Edison is often dispassionate and arrogant, who shows determination towards his work. Shannon’s Westinghouse is equally ambitious but not as restrained as Edison. Neither performances are the most outstanding work from the pair, but their portrayals are without fault. Tom Holland also delivers a decent performance as Samuel Insull, Edison’s assistant. And while the inclusion of Nikola Tesla as a character diminishes the main focus on Edison and Westinghouse, Nicolas Hoult gives one the most assured performances I have seen from him. The male-dominated cast leaves little room for the female roles to shine, but Katherine Waterston does showcase her talent as Marguerite Walker.
However, at the end of the day, it is unclear what point The Current War is trying to make. It may be that healthy competition is acceptable between people and should be embraced, rather than defaming another person and their achievements. However, The Current War is too unfocused for this to be definitively declared. The film is watchable but because of its overly frenzied pace it isn’t particularly engaging, resulting in the audience not caring about any of the characters and what happens.