Powered by an immaculate cast, The Current War is a historical drama all about the race to conquering the electricity industry. While that might sound drab to some who dreaded history class, the performances and craftwork put into the film propel it much further than one might expect. Nonetheless, the energy provided is just not quite enough to get it over the finish line.
The movie, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejo, centers around the capitalistic clash of Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in the late 1800s. With Edison's lightbulb already invented, we see Edison and Westinghouse attempt to implement electric lighting in cities across the U.S. The main difference between the two are the means in which the electric current travels, either through alternating current (Westinghouse's choice) or direct current (Edison's choice).
The plot sees the two men try to outmaneuver one another using political showmanship, legal threats and jabs in the press, all while trying to keep their companies afloat. It's a clash of personalities that rarely share screen time, which only works if the actor can convey their sides of the conflict well. Luckily, Cumberbatch and Shannon are two of the best in the business. They fit into these characters like gloves and sell the material. Cumberbatch plays a spin on the pushy genius he perfected on Sherlock, while Shannon plays the intimidating powerhouse he's often known for, all while adding a touch of sincerity.
The power duo's selling of this boring-on-paper historical concept give it incredible energy and will suck you in early on. Those performances paired with a punchy flair granted by Gomez-Rejo's directing style provide the movie's backbone. Unfortunately the film's story is ultimately where it falters. The chess-match between entrepreneurs just simply runs out of gas after a while. The story even ends on a low-key note that glaringly shows just how much of the film's energy has been lost by the time it concludes.
Writer Michael Mitnick's attempts to beef up the plot don't help things either. There's an of amount of time spent developing Nicholas Hoult's version of Nikolai Tesla, who ultimately falls wayside as the movie closes. They spend too much time on Tesla for him to be non-factor, but also not enough time for him to be a gripping third lead.
Additionally, one-note characters played by Tom Holland and Matthew Macfadyen just can't stand out. Add this into underdeveloped elements about the genius' families and the use of the currents for capital punishment, and what you have is a movie that just can't make it to the end of the line.
Despite these shortcomings, history buffs will likely enjoy the film and how it zones in on a unique conflict in the U.S. transition into the 20th century, and fans of the two leads won't be disappointed in what they each bring to the table. However, outside of those demographics, this may be one to wait and catch on cable or streaming.
The Current War is in theaters now.
Photo credit: Lantern Entertainment / Thunder Road Pictures