Friday, November 8, 2019

The Current War Doesn't Shock But It Does Alright Nonetheless

We take electricity for granted nowadays since it's used to power everything, including the computer I'm typing this review up on! But there was a time just a bit over a century ago where electricity was a new concept and a few men were in control of its future. Two of these men, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), are the central focus of The Current War, which chronicles their multi-year feud over who gets to go down in history as the person that lit up America. Edison's the one with the brains but also the one who can't seem to interact with a person without starting up a fight whereas Westinghouse is the soft-spoken man with a head for business but not much in the way of a head for science.

Their conflict, which eventually involves an immigrant with great aspirations by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), plays out in a mighty messy fashion throughout The Current War, there’s no getting around it. The final cut, apparently heavily re-edited from the version that first premiered two years ago, suffers primarily from being overstuffed. What we have her is a classic example of a two-hour movie being crammed into a ninety-minute movie, resulting in something that frequently feels cramped. There’s a heavy reliance on voice-over work to communicate character details we’d be better off actually seeing, a few too many supporting characters (namely Nikola Tesla and any women in the story) get shoved to the side and there’s at least four different endings that suggest indecisiveness over how to wrap this puppy up. 

Despite throwing so much at the audience in just the space of ninety-seven minutes, it's a disappointment how little of it really registers as substantive. Issues related to these overstuffed tendencies end up ensuring that The Current War isn’t able to fully work as the thoughtful character-driven period piece it wants to be. Those coming in here to see fully rendered human portraits of historical figures will leave underwhelmed. However, as just a high-voltage (no pun intended) period piece melodrama showcase for a talented group of actors, The Current War left me satisfied more often than not. This particular group of rich white people sniping at each other never becomes as good as, say, an episode of Succession (even though it has one of the show’s cast members!) but they do manage to create some passable entertainment nonetheless.

Just as the rapid-fire pacing keeps the characters thinly defined, it does at least keep the movie moving at a decent clip that ensures one is rarely bored during the proceedings. The Current War's speedy nature taketh away, but it does also giveth in the form of making sure the proceedings never become tedious. A lot of that component entertainment is owed to the actors, who imbue as much personality as they can into a number of underwritten parts, particularly the female members of the cast. In a nice twist on expectations, Michael Shannon gets to play a more restrained individual for once in the role of George Westinghouse and it's a part that allows him to show off his undervalued range as a performer. 

Supporting players like Tom Holland and Katherine Waterston don't get much in the way of human beings to inhabit but at least they capture your attention whenever they're on-screen. The biggest surprise in the cast is actually Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison. This is a piece of casting that seemingly sets up Cumberbatch to play his newest socially awkward asshole genius whose actually aswell fella. However, Edison goes in a refreshingly different direction. In fact, he ends up being the most interesting character in The Current War, a morally complex inventor tormented by loss and committed to destroying competition out of instinct rather than any actual malice.

Cumberbatch does commendable work realizing The Current War’s complex vision of Thomas Edison and in the process actually allows the character to stand out from his other similar intellectual roles. The actors are all working under the direction of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, an actor who has a good hand with actors and an admirable commitment to bold camerawork. Unfortunately, his camerawork choices frequently feel too pronounced, they have a bad habit of exclusively calling attention to themselves rather than enhancing what’s happening on-screen. Still, Gomez-Rejon does show enough imagination behind the camera on The Current War to carry the project across the “decent” line.

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