Like much of the old Weinstein Company catalogue, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War was once notionally poised for awards season assault. Then – way back in 2017 – a rushed edit, pushed by Harvey himself into a premature Toronto festival release, dropped like a stone. Just weeks later, the Weinstein scandal saw the whole thing shelved. Now, nearly two years on, a salvaged recut comes courtesy of Lantern and Entertainment Films, quietly slipped into a Summer of big hitters. It’s an unjust fate for a film with verve enough to assuage its fair share of faults.
The true-to-life tale concerns the battle for electric franchisement across America in those final decades of the twentieth century. In the blue corner stands Thomas Edison, the world renowned, extraordinarily stubborn inventor of the lightbulb. He’s a man who ‘can’t be bothered to tie his own shoes, let alone attend social events’ and so is piecemeal for Benedict Cumberbatch‘s brand of anaemic genius. Opposite wrinkles a wiser, more acquiescent Michael Shannon as the lesser known George Westinghouse. While the former got ‘there’ first – certainly so in the imagination of populist America – it is the latter’s savvy mind for business that promises returns. A keen prospect from above for Edison’s wealthy benefactor, J. P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen). Edison and Westinghouse’s war is a battle of direct versus alternating currents; patents and pride, men and machines. A dearth of science speak here suggests that the reality was a far duller affair.
On the arms of each inventor rests a wife, a duo of women oddly identikit in image and narrative role but rescued with gumption by Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston. While Middleton’s Mary Edison chokes – rather too abruptly for dramatic effluence – early, Waterston delivers with mighty insistence as Marguerite Westinghouse. Neither are prepared to be penned as the supporting woman and both fare better than Edison’s entirely exorcised second marriage. Hints throughout suggest Mary and Marguerite to have had capacity to equal their husbands but this is an undercooked conceit. Much has changed in the three years since The Current War was produced and one suspects a very different script, written today, could have made much more of these hidden figures. Perhaps that’s ambitious. Instead, the film’s third bright spark is fellow Caucasian male Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
Emotional resonance is hardly the strength of Gomez-Rejon’s work here, with human interest vastly outweighed by the power of genius. A notion for context on the wider schematic is lacking in the film, whilst there’s little to translate internal motivation. In the stead of such factors is a visual toy box of kooky, kaleidoscopic cinematography upturned unto the lens. Dutch, low, high and loopy angles pervade the vast majority of the film’s scenes, with those shots not slanted largely mobile in their own right. It’s brilliant visual filler and proves consistently entertaining for the widest of eyes.
Where some may baulk at such business, the galvanising effect of Gomez-Rejon’s efforts proves highly effective as a tonal keystone for the project. Transmitted is a sense for the fervour of inventive minds and encapsulation of an era in which anything was possible. It’s exciting, opportunistic, fearsome even. What a time to be alive. There is, too, an intense feeling of contemporaneity to the style, something pleasingly immediate in the face of many a stuffy period effort. Downton feels a long way of Gomez-Rejon’s East Coast. It doesn’t all land – split screens prove less effective, say, than the simpler match cuts in the climax – but it’s an effective negotiation of style nonetheless. Sparky.