As a writer, my time is split between nonfiction and fiction. My nonfiction deals with the lighting industry, which I’ve been writing about for magazines, associations, websites, and manufacturers for 30 years. So I was very interested in watching THE CURRENT WAR (2017), a film about the war between George Westinghouse and Thomas Alva Edison about whether AC or DC power would dominate American power distribution, as I was familiar with some of the history. The film does a good job dramatizing their war and I was happy to see this bit of history covered by a major film, though overall the result feels kinda tame, like a traditional TV movie.
The film starts with Edison’s commercialization of a viable incandescent light bulb and a DC power system used to feed electricity to these bulbs from generators. Edison is excellently played by Benedict Cumberbatch, basically reprising his eccentric genius Sherlock role complete with a Watson-like sidekick. While the bulbs are amazing for the period (they last 13 hours as opposed to two, the best anybody else could do), DC power isn’t very efficient, resulting in a huge number of generators and the air crisscrossed with thick wires. Enter George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), a railroad engineer who grew rich on investing an air brake for trains. He sees AC power as the future as it’s dramatically more efficient, but he doesn’t have Edison’s light bulbs. Westinghouse wants to work together, but Edison snubs him, starting a war to see which power system will electrify America.
Edison goes so far as to try to smear AC power as dangerous, electrifying animals in front of the press and supporting the invention of the electric chair. But AC power is clearly superior. All it’s missing is a viable motor that can accept an AC power input. Enter a genius named Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant who has the answer. The rest, as they say, is history.
The film has a great cast and a lot of love went into bringing the period to life. I especially appreciated the topic, as the Current War is as dramatic as they come in terms of history, and it was fought by business and intellectual giants who were rapidly transforming America with radical inventions such as electricity, the phonograph, arc lamps, and motion pictures. The film does a fantastic job of creating a sense of wonder and how at the time a few great minds could change the world with science.
The film sags, however, in its storytelling. The writers tried to balance the human and business sides of the war without giving either the right height. The directing is also fairly staid, propping up the result with Scorcese-like visual elements (he was a producer) that feel utterly out of place and actually detract from all the effort made to create historical immersion. I also think they might have done better to give Tesla far more screen time, as he is such a fascinating figure who made science truly feel like magic. This is a guy who stood on a stage at the Chicago World Fair and electrified himself (safely because the frequency was so high), powering a forerunner to the fluorescent tube that he held in his hand. The film also doesn’t mention he got ripped off.
So in the end, this is another one I liked instead of loved. Overall, it’s very enjoyable and the history is great, though the telling somewhat sags with lackluster directing.