[Screen It]


(2019) (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon) (PG-13)

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Drama: Two American inventors compete to bring their electrical system to the masses in the late 19th century.
It's the late 19th century and inventor Thomas Edison (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) has introduced his incandescent light bulb to the world and is pushing for his direct current electrical system to be adopted as the standard for lighting up America. With the support of his wife, Mary (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON), and assistant, Samuel Insull (TOM HOLLAND), and the financial backing of famous banker J.P. Morgan (MATTHEW MACFADYEN), Thomas seems unstoppable.

Except for the fact that his main competitor, George Westinghouse (MICHAEL SHANNON), is pushing the far cheaper and more efficient alternating current electrical system. With the support of his wife, Marguerite (KATHERINE WATERSTON), and engineering prowess of Franklin Pope (STANLEY TOWNSEND), he hopes to prove that his version is the better choice than Edison's.

And then there's futurist inventor Nikola Tesla (NICHOLAS HOULT) who initially works for Edison but ends up dismayed when the more famous inventor dismisses his work. After trying to make it on his own, he ends up working for Westinghouse, all while Edison pushes the fact that AC power is potentially lethal.

That draws the attention of a human rights advocate who wants to create an electric chair to execute criminals rather than do so in what he thinks is the more barbaric mode of hanging. With that stealing some of their respective spotlights, the two inventors race to beat out the other before the Chicago World's Fair.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The beauty of living in today's Internet-laden world is that if you need to do some repairs or additions around the house -- let's say, electrical work -- you can easily find how-to instructions and step-by-step videos to cover just about every variation of said project. And if you have a hankering to go more in-depth than that and learn any or all aspects of topics such as electricity, you can find that information as well.

Most of us, however, are content to be oblivious about why such things work, fully expecting a light or other device to come on when we throw the switch (or, nowadays, give the verbal command to a smart speaker).

We only think about it when it doesn't work, and should we ever find ourselves in some post-apocalyptic world where it's been wiped away and the Internet no longer has power, I have my doubts that unless we find ourselves in the company of engineers or those proficient at MacGyvering things, we'll be in a heap of trouble.

And that's because while we, as a society, have become proficient at building off past inventions that have been built off even older inventions, I wonder how many people know enough to start from scratch and thus become modern-day Edisons, Westinghouses or Teslas and thus reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and re-light the world.

All of which segues into a film, "The Current War: Director's Cut" that focuses on those men and their race to bring electric lighting to America. A troubled production -- it found itself smack dab in the middle of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse issue when his company was going to release it and word was he was ordering edits to be made on it -- the period drama arrives a few years later than planned and with too many issues to be considered an Oscar contender as I'm guessing all involved were hoping for.

The biggest problem -- as often bedevils true-life history stories that follow a number of historical figures over a span of years -- is that there simply isn't enough time -- with a running span of 107 minutes -- to give the characters, their goals and the resultant competitive race to light up America enough due. There's so much material here that this sort of tale really needed to be told as a mini-series where everything could be fleshed out and all of the details illuminated to make it a fascinating look at a mostly forgotten part of history.

As it stands, and despite filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon getting the finished product back under his control (thus the subtitle), the film -- written by Michael Mitnick -- feels quite episodic and somewhat dramatically herky-jerky as it all-too-quickly moves from one moment and element to the next without allowing any of them really to sink in.

All of which is a shame because the story should be fascinating and the cast is terrific. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison who's trying to sell investors, including legendary banker J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), that his DC (direct current) electrical system is the best and safest way to power his incandescent lights. Michael Shannon plays George Westinghouse who can't compete on the light bulb side, but is pushing his AC (alternating current) system as far less expensive.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Hoult plays Nikola Tesla who ends up working for both men in trying to make a motor that will work off electricity; Tom Holland plays Edison's assistant; Tuppence Middleton plays Edison's wife; and Katherine Waterston plays Westinghouse's better half. Alas, most of them aren't given much material with which to work, especially in regard to Tesla (who also got the short shrift in the 2006 competing Victorian magician drama "The Prestige").

Added potential arrives in the form of a human rights advocate desiring a more "humane" way to execute prisoners than hanging, and what better way to do so than running a few thousand volts through them. But like most everything else about the pic (including a family tragedy on Edison's side), it doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it could and should have, mainly due to the focus -- both narrative and visual as the camera is often being used at weird angles and such -- never staying put long enough.

As a result, the film doesn't really shed any new light on the people, and the drama is lacking enough power to jolt the material out of mediocrity. While it might appeal to fans of old-school science, there's nowhere near enough wattage here to light up the box office. Perhaps one day it will be told in a longer form that will allow the story and its characters to shine more brightly. As it stands, "The Current War: Director's Cut" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 16, 2019 / Posted October 25, 2019

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