In a world of staid biopics – including some members of this very cast – I'm pleasantly surprised that The Current War is an electric film (pun intended).
Benedict Cumberbatch stars, with the right mix of arrogance and vulnerability, as Thomas Edison. A workaholic and brilliant mind who's a pretty awful husband and father, he's constantly trying to invent new things, perfect what he's come up with (or stolen), and putting as much of the U.S. on Edison's direct current electricity as possible. His rival is George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), a far more humble businessman who's still a perfectionist, who knows his technology and alternating current is superior, and will thus win out in the end. Edison knows this, too, so he's not above resorting to dirty tricks and publicity stunts to give himself an advantage.
The film races through nearly 15 years of their professional battles, keeping the film moving full steam ahead until the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Tom Holland plays Edison's right-hand man Samuel Insull, who's far more of a realist than his boss. Nicholas Hoult plays Nikola Tesla, who plays a key roll in Westinghouse's dominance in later years. Unfortunately, his story is the weakest part of the film. There's plenty of timeliness in a story about a mistreated immigrant who plays an integral role in the future of the country. But he's given so little to do until he teams up with Westinghouse that his inclusion feels like an afterthought, solely there for the film's most groan-worthy line.
But every technical aspect of the film is terrific: the costume and production design, the propulsive music (by the Oscar-nominated duo of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran) and the ethereal cinematography (by Park Chan-wook's go-to guy Chung Chung-hoon) are all top-notch. This is one of the best-looking films of the year, even when an anachronistic U.S. map is a distraction.
The film has had a long road since it premiered at TIFF two years ago. It was originally to be distributed (and mangled) by the Weinstein Company, and was rescued and reassembled (hence the Director's Cut subtitle), and sent out into the world by newcomers 101 Studios. It's another strong effort from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who's one of those directors who's impossible to pin down. He's directed episodes of Glee and American Horror Story, and his previous films were a horror sequel and coming-of-age drama Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He could do anything next, but let's hope it's another smart movie for adults.