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Power struggle – ‘The Current War: Director’s Cut’

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It’s rarely good news when a film’s release is significantly pushed back. Regardless of the reasons, it’s not a great look when your movie hits the festival circuit, only to disappear from view for months or even years before eventually getting a wide release.

Every once in a while, though, the end result is a better film.

That seems to be the case with “The Current War: Director’s Cut” – released as such because it has been significantly changed from its initial appearance on the scene a couple of years ago. And those changes seem to have done the trick, because while that earlier version of the film was received in a manner that would charitably be called “mixed,” this new iteration is actually a pretty solid biopic.

It’s the story of the real-life rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse as they competed to see whose electrical current – Edison’s DC or Westinghouse’s AC – would be the one that electrified America and the world. It’s a stylish and aesthetically engaging film – far more so than you might expect from a biopic such as this one – with an A-list ensemble cast and dynamic direction courtesy of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

In the 1880s, inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, “Avengers: Endgame”) is one of the most famous men in America. His latest endeavor is harnessing the power of electricity; he has created bulbs that convert electricity into light. As part of the next step, he is building direct current (DC) generators that will power city blocks (all with the financial assistance of the ultra-wealthy J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen, TV’s “Succession”).

But fellow innovator George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, TV’s “The Little Drummer Girl”) believes that the future is in alternating current (AC); if properly harnessed, he thinks that AC can work at considerably less expense and over much larger distances – especially since he has the assistance of the brilliant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult, “Dark Phoenix”), whose past employment by Edison wound up being less than fulfilling.

In the years that follow, the two titans go back and forth, each doing their best to prove that their system is the best one. As cities across the country opt for one or the other, a publicity battle unfolds, with Edison implying that there is a danger inherent to AC that isn’t present with DC. He strives to find ways to reduce the expense of DC, while Westinghouse and Tesla seek to find ways to convert AC to power more than just light bulbs.

The finish line – such as it is – is the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The fair’s organizers seek bids to light the event; the winner will have their current presented to the millions of visitors who will attend. The winner of the battle for the World’s Fair will likely be the winner of the current war.

Full disclosure: I didn’t see the original cut of this film, so I can’t speak to what improvements may have been made. But considering that this new version has been recut, with new scenes filmed and some 10 minutes shaved from the runtime, there’s no doubt that it is different. And while I can’t say that it is better, I can say this – it’s quite good. In fact, “The Current War: Director’s Cut” is probably the best delayed release I can recall seeing.

It’s shot differently than you usually see with this sort of prestige biopic, unafraid to offer up unconventional angles and aesthetics. There’s a richness of color, a sense of saturation that is almost theatrical in its vividness. It’s a bold look, painted with broad strokes in a way that is always engaging even in the occasional moments where it doesn’t quite click.

And of course, there’s the cast. It’s a phenomenal collection of talent. Cumberbatch’s portrayal sands some of the rough edges off the notoriously prickly Edison, offering up a man driven by ideas and terrified that the legacy he leaves will be somehow insufficient. Westinghouse is a surprisingly straightforward role for Shannon; we’re used to seeing him as strange and/or sinister, but he’s quietly charming as the forthright Westinghouse. While the two spend little time onscreen together, each does a great job ensuring that the other’s presence is a constant.

The ensemble is stacked as well. Macfadyen endows J.P. Morgan with a sad-eyed dignity, while Hoult is clearly having a blast as the thickly-accented and dandified Tesla. Tom Holland has some compelling scenes as Edison’s assistant Samuel Insull; it’s the type of role that could be thankless, but Holland lends it some depth. Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston – as Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, respectively – are both excellent, albeit underused; a bit more of them would have been a welcome addition to the proceedings.

Even after the fixes, there are some issues here, the largest being the muddiness of the timeline; in some spots, the passage of time isn’t rendered particularly clearly. And in a few spots, the commitment to the aesthetic threatens to subjugate the storytelling. Even so, those issues pale in comparison to the successes – the compelling story, the unusual stylistic choices and the quality of performer and performance.

“The Current War: Director’s Cut” is a relative rarity, a film that survived a multitude of concerns both on-screen and off. Movies that stay in the can this long are NEVER this good, and yet here we are. It might not quite reach the heights to which it so clearly aspires, but there’s still a whole lot to like. A comeback story like this might surprise you, but considering the players involved, the end result shouldn’t come as a shock.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Saturday, 26 October 2019 09:18

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