Before Macs vs. PCs, before Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos struggled for dominance in building reusable rockets, there was the late 19th century battle to determine whether direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) technology would ultimately bring electricity to the world at large. That fascinating period of history has been brought to vivid life in The Current War: Director's Cut. This may be well-worn territory for hardcore fans of science history, but plenty of people have never heard of the so-called "war of the currents," and Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) has put his own fresh stamp on the saga.
(Some spoilers below, especially for those unfamiliar with the history.)
The Current War is a fictionalized account of the historical rivalry between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring electricity to the masses. Hundreds of central power stations were cropping up across America, each using different combinations of circuits and equipment. Edisons Pearl Street generating station in Manhattan supplied DC power to a few hundred mansions of wealthy New Yorkers, as well as a smattering of mills, factories, and theaters in the city.
Westinghouse espoused AC, with more than 30 plants in operation by 1887. DC current had the Edison name and associated influence behind it, but AC current was cheaper. It could travel farther, supplying electricity to homes across a wider area than DC, and hence Westinghouse's approach required less copper wire and fewer generating stations. The potential payoff for the victor was enormous, so it's a small wonder the battle to dominate this fledgling market got very ugly. In his thoughtful, artfully shot film, Gomez-Rejon showcases the all-too-human foibles as well as the strengths of the central characters, emphasizing their very different styles and philosophies to bring out the tension between ego, ambition, and humility.
"I was fascinated by this rivalry to create the modern world," Gomez-Rejon told Ars. "This is a movie about the original disruptors. It was a mesmerizing opportunity to make a period film that is as much about the future as it is about the past."
Have I heard this one before?
Produced by Martin Scorsese, an earlier cut of The Current War was financed by the Weinstein Company. That version premiered in 2017 at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF), but then Harvey Weinstein was credibly accused of sexual abuse and stepped down from the company. The Current War was shelved and eventually sold off when the company declared bankruptcy. That stalemate was quite the blow to Gomez-Rejon, who was already frustrated with Weinstein's heavy-handed interference in shifting the director's original vision. He also felt a rush to present this film at TIFF even though Gomez-Rejon knew it wasn't ready. He told Deadline Hollywood recently that this period comprised "some of the darkest moments of my life."
It didn't help that Weinstein's version did not fare well at TIFF, and Gomez-Rejon feared his career as a director might be over before it had really begun. Ultimately the story seemed too captivating: the film landed with 101 Studios, Scorsese helped him get back the rights, and producer Timur Bekmambetov funded reshoots with key cast members so Gomez-Rejon could complete the film as he originally intended. To ensure this new version had a fighting chance—and wouldn't suffer from the negative reviews of the earlier version (which has a critics' score of 31% on Rotten Tomatoes)—its official title is The Current War: Director's Cut.
The first trailer for the director's cut dropped in June. One of the chief criticisms of the Weinstein cut was that it felt bloated and overlong, with sluggish pacing. The director's cut is ten minutes shorter and has been re-edited substantially to improve the narrative rhythm. And even though the film is shorter, there are five new scenes from the original shoot in London, as well as extra scenes from the reshoot. These scenes better develop Edison's relationship with his wife, Mary, as well as the character of Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (played by Nicholas Hoult in the film)—notably, how Tesla got royally screwed by investors when he established his arc lighting manufacturing company in 1886. The investors fired him and retained control of his patents, leaving the inventor penniless. Fortunately, Westinghouse heard about Tesla's novel designs for AC motors and transformers, and he brought the young man on board.