“The Current War” had a long journey to make it to the big screen.
The screenplay was written in 2008 and made the “Black List,” in 2011, which is an industry survey of “most liked” screenplays not yet produced. Different directors were attached until finally Alfonso Gomez-Rejon joined the project to direct his follow-up to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a critically loved feature that made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.
“The Current War” premiered to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 to awful reviews. People called it a bore and the Oscar buzz surrounding it had disappeared. Gomez-Rejon said the film was rushed for the festival and was not yet fully complete. He was ready for reshoots and additional edits, but then something happened.
Harvey Weinstein — who bought the film and owned the distribution rights — got caught in a giant scandal which brought his entire company to a halt and eventually landed him in prison.
The movie company was sold, the production was shelved and it seemed like it would never see the light of day, which is a shame for a movie featuring powerhouse actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland and Nicolas Hoult (Doctor Strange, General Zod, Spider-Man and Beast, respectively, for comic movie nerds.)
Eventually Gomez-Rejon discovered that producer Martin Scorcese had negotiated a final edit clause in the movie’s deal and Gomez-Rejon began to raise money online to finish his movie. He raised $1 million and brought the cast back for reshoots and cut 10 minutes off the run time.
The movie made a brief appearance in theaters in October 2019 but was considered a flop. It made its rental debut on March 31.
So after all this work to make it to audiences, is “The Current War” any good?
Personally, I say it is.
It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s a dry historical drama that deals with science, but I found the performances and the screenplay to be electrifying.
Cumberbatch brings Thomas Edison to life as he battles against Shannon’s George Westinghouse to see which company can bring electricity to homes across the country. Edison believes in direct current and Westinghouse thinks alternating current is better (I was disappointed there were no AC/DC musical references at the end credits).
They sabotage and attack one another in a ruthless battle to see who gets out on top.
Nicolas Hoult plays Nicolai Tesla, the famed scientist and inventor who briefly worked for Edison before joining forces with Westinghouse. Holland plays Edison’s assistant.
This movie is really about the passion of two men who sought to cement their places in history.
Edison — famous for inventing the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera — often didn’t actually invent these things himself, but people who worked for him did.
Edison says in the movie: “Let me welcome you to the reality of how things come into existence. We all contribute. That’s what invention is. The salt, the grain, the heat, the heart. Only one man makes the bread rise. That’s the one that puts it all together. Makes it taste so damn good the people will go out there, and hand over their hard-won dollars to buy it.”
And Westinghouse didn’t care about getting rich, but about changing the world.
He says in the movie: “If you want to be remembered, it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”
As they battle back and forth, Edison manipulates newspaper reporters into pushing his agenda. He lets it slip that Westinghouse’s alternating current electricity can kill a person. He even demonstrates it by electrocuting a horse. But that leads some to a new idea: the electric chair. Instead of execution by hanging, they now have a “safer” method. Westinghouse objects, saying that it’s cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eight Amendment, but his real goal is make sure his brand of electricity isn’t associated with killing people.
It’s a shame that Gomez-Rejon didn’t get to completely make the movie he envisioned. My guess is that the extra reshoots and editing got him closer to his goal — hence the Director’s Cut subtitle — but it feels like it’s not quite yet there with Oscar-worthy greatness.
Nonetheless, I found this movie to be hidden gem. There are so many excellent lines of dialogue in this smart screenplay and I found the acting performances to be high-wattage. There’s a simmer of tension throughout the proceedings with dark cinematography and suspenseful music.
I hope the next movie that Gomez-Rejon directs goes much smoother because I see a ton of potential in him. I never saw his feature debut in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a Blumhouse horror flick, but the other two movies are really solid. Plus, he was an assistant director on Best Picture winner “Argo” and the Alejandro González Iñárritu classic “21 Grams.”
Gomez-Rejon has talent and for his sake I hope he doesn’t work with any more creepy producers like Harvey Weinstein.