Finally landing in theaters this week, The Current War, now branded as The Current War: The Director’s Cut, has had its more than fair share of troubles. Originally imagined to debut in 2017, the film became buried under the collapse of The Weinstein Company, quickly losing its interest with the public, despite boasting an all-star cast. But thanks to the efforts of 101 Studios, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film is finally getting the theatrical release it always imagined, now optimized with several new scenes after a round of poor reviews once the original 2017 cut was screened to trade press. Cinephiles may never know what the original cut of the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring thriller entailed, but one thing’s for certain, The Current War: The Director’s Cut isn’t anything to gawk at. Featuring Cumberbatch in the leading role as Thomas Edison, the film certainly moves at a cutthroat pace, coming in at a mere 107 minutes. However, it’s a decision that often compromises the work, rather than elevating it, botching some of its key emotional moments and deescalating any sense of gravitas. Armed with all the necessary elements to craft a sharply entertaining piece of cinema, Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, even after two years of intense edits and reshoots, still isn’t up to the task of realizing the broad potential of its source material and an outstanding cast.
Chronicling the corporate electricity war between industry pioneers Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), The Current War takes an angle of history that few films have even scratched the surface of, and none with this level of prestige. The film’s ensemble from Cumberbatch to Edison’s assistant played by Tom Holland is the very foundation that the sprawling narrative is built on. Without it, it’s hard to see The Current War working even remotely close to as well as it does now, even in its drab and bland state. Coupled together, the performances add a layer of finesse, thinly permeating across every scene and line of dialogue. Moments thirsty of honest, gloss-free writing are elevated to absorbing sequences of tension thanks to the flair each actor and actress offers to the table. Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonder as Thomas Edison, making the very most of the role that’s admittedly quite like Cumberbatch’s other roles. His performance here solidifies Cumberbatch as a performer who pushes himself to the very peak with every role he takes on.
The rest of the cast is just as refined in their work as Cumberbatch is, despite many of the characters being hollow and dully written. Michael Shannon adds a sympathetic layer to Westinghouse’s often cold demeanor, framing certain key events of the film as justifiable and even rewarding at points for an audience who immerses in that sympathy. It’s all thanks to Shannon’s firm grasp of his stylized version of the character and how that version would play in the world that director Gomez-Rejon has envisioned. Tom Holland additionally shines as Samuel Insull in what is rather a muted role, always playing second fiddle to the leading man Thomas Edison.
On the other hand, both Nicholas Hoult and Katherine Waterston falter in their minimalistic characters, mostly to no fault of their own. The provided material is simply too underdressed to be considered the meaty foundation for a performance worthy of these performers. Their presence is underutilized, notably Waterston as Marguerite Westinghouse, George Westinghouse’s (Michael Shannon) wife. Her inclusion could have made for some fantastic discussion about Shannon’s character’s unquestionably despicable actions, perhaps even challenging them to the character’s face. These are the moments The Current War is in desperate need of, the moments where all the events and narrative elements meld together in one satisfying scene. Without them, The Current War risks over-extending itself, losing its credibility and value as a deliciously entertaining drama, which after all, outside of its cast, is what will propel audiences to the theater or not.
Even on the technical side, the film is still a mixed bag, layering the potential for utter grandeur but botching it at the first possible moment. For example, it’s obvious that cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung has some audacious ideas of how to frame The Current War’s key moments, relying mostly on close face shots, replicating something like a psychological character study. However, a psychological character study is exactly what The Current War is not. The film’s content is simply too broad to have a focus sharp enough for a character study piece, consequently, these shots look bafflingly out of place. It doesn’t help that in certain scenes there is clear extraneous editing as two people speak. Simply put, there are clear remnants of the film used to be, and they’re sprinkled handily across the entire run time. At the very least, composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran do some fantastic work, creating a score that isn’t handicapped by confusion as to what the film is.
In the end, The Current War stands as one of the greatest corporate miracles in modern Hollywood. The fact that the film was ever released, even as mediocre it is, theatrically is a testament for the potential both the general audiences and 101 Studios expected of Gomez-Rejon’s latest directorial release. However, The Current War never measures up to expectations, disappointing in all regards, most notably as a piece of thrilling entertainment. The storytelling moves at the speed of light but at the cost of creating structurally sound cinema.
Three brilliant visionaries set off in a charged battle for the future in The Current War: Director’s Cut, the epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world. Benedict Cumberbatch is Thomas Edison, the celebrity inventor on the verge of bringing electricity to Manhattan with his radical new DC technology. On the eve of triumph, his plans are upended by charismatic businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who believes he and his partner, theupstart genius Nikolai Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), have a superior idea for how to rapidly electrify America: with AC current. As Edison and Westinghouse grapple for who will power the nation, they spark one of the first and greatest corporate feuds in American history, establishing for future Titans of Industry the need to break all the rules. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) with Producer Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk and Executive Producer Martin Scorsese, The Current War: Director’s Cut also stars Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen and Tuppence Middleton.
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR'S CUT Hits Theaters this Friday.