Without the events in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film The Current War, you would have no idea who I am. Think about it. You’ve never seen me. You’ve never heard my voice. You’ve never looked into my eyes or shaken my hand, and you will probably never meet in me person. Yet because of the work of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla, I can translate my thoughts into electrical current, into a series of 0s and 1s that can then be bounced off a satellite and piped through fiber optic cable and copper wire into your home, where you can, in turn, translate them back into English. For Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Michael Mitnick, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. We might be living Thomas Alva Edison’s dream come true, but we might also be living inside one of his nightmares.
Even though it’s local history — I grew up a few miles from Menlo Park, New Jersey — I was not taught about the “current war,” the brutal, often unethical public relationships war in the 1880s between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse over whether DC, “direct current,” or AC, “alternating current,” would become the standard form of electricity in the United States, in school. For me, as a child, DC meant “battery powered,” AC meant “electricity,” and AC/DC meant a loud, obnoxious Australian rock band. What’s more, until last Summer, I had never even heard of George Westinghouse, let alone that he was not only a major competitor to Thomas Edison, but probably a more important figure in the history of electricity. Tesla, in turn, at least if you depend on Google for your answer, is just a car, a vanity project for South African billionaire Elon Musk. If you want to find out who Nikola Tesla is, you have to search for “Tesla inventor.” If you just type “Tesla” he doesn’t appear until the second page, and even then only because of a paid ad.
These days, the use of “alternating current” to light out homes and power our computers seems like common sense. Direct current is expensive, inefficient, and would mean a dedicated power station every block. We also understand that alternating current is really only dangerous if you don’t have any common sense. Don’t stick your finger in an electrical socket. Make sure your house is wired correctly. Back in the 1880s, however, Thomas Alva Edison, far from being an innovator or an agent of change, was standing in the way of progress. Direct current was his baby. Alternating current was not. Direct current, Edison decided, would become the standard, even if it killed him, him or any one of dozens of dogs, cats, horses, or a German immigrant named William Kemmler. Indeed, so determined was Edison to prove that alternating current was too dangerous to become commercially viable that he become, in effect, the father of the electric chair as surely as he become the father of the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and cinema.
If The Current War has a hero, then it’s George Westinghouse, Edison’s competitor, the man who not only laid the foundation for America’s electrical grid, but who exposed Edison’s collusion with the prison industrial complex of New York to build the first electric chair, and stage the first high tech execution for the press. If it has a villain it’s Edison itself. We like everything about Westinghouse, played by Irish actor Michael Shannon, and his wife Marguerite Erskine Walker, played by the surprisingly good Katherine Waterson, the daughter of Sam Waterson, the actor who starred for years in the dreadful NYPD propaganda series Law and Order. The real George and Marguerite Westinghouse were married for 47 years and the film succeeds in bringing their loving relationship to the screen. When Westinghouse and his chief engineer Franklin Pope get into a comic argument about who would throw the switch on one of their projects, she steps in and throws the switch herself. When her husband is ready to throw in the towel and call it quits, she persuades him to continue the fight. When he guiltily confesses to her that he broke into a the state executioner’s office to steal letters linking the development of the electric chair to Edison himself, she kisses him on the mouth as if to say “good going.”
If Katherine Waterston is surprisingly good in her small role, the main weakness of The Current War is Benedict Cumberbatch, the film’s star. It’s not that Cumberbatch is a bad actor or even that he’s wrong for the part. He was excellent as Alan Turing in the 2014 film The Imitation War. But for whatever reason, he doesn’t work as Thomas Alva Edison. We get no real idea why he’s opposed to alternating current, or if there’s any truth to his initial declaration that he will never invent a device that can be used to harm people. Early in the film, Edison does turn own a weapons development contract that could have made him rich, but whether his decision to secretly help develop the electric chair comes out of a genuine belief that alternating current is harmful and thus must be stopped at all costs, or if its just his ego betraying ideals he once, or may have once held, is left in the dark. That of course is the fault of the script, not Cumberbatch, but a better actor might have been able to give us an impression of what was Edison was really thinking, to build the character from the inside out. What Mitnick’s script does convey quite well is how electrical impulses, like the ones your reading right now, are no replacement for genuine human conflict. After Edison’s wife Mary, who he neglected for his work, dies of a brain tumor and he later found out that she left him a collection of recordings on his newly invented phonograph, it’s all the more heartbreaking. A few scratchy words produced by a mechanical device are no replacement for the person you realized all too late, that you loved more than you realized.
If Nikola Tesla’s character is underdeveloped, Mitnick and Gomez-Rejon do put what time they give him to good use. By the sound of his name, I’ll assume Gomez-Rejon is a Mexican American, and even if he’s not he still manages to project his disgust over our current anti-immigrant hysteria into Edison’s treatment of Tesla, a Serbian immigrant. Not only does Edison steal his promised wage of $50,000, he casually dismisses him after the young Eastern European correctly points out that Westinghouse is right about alternating current. Later, after Tesla strikes out on his own and finds his own investor, that investor turns out to be a racist asshole who steals his patents, then tells him to “go back to where you came from.” Genius inventor, or unskilled immigrant landscaper, wage theft and xenophobic bigotry feels just the same. Indeed, even though Nicholas Hoult, who plays Tesla, didn’t impress me at all, at some point I found myself wishing the movie had been called “Tesla” instead of “The Current Wars.” Perhaps it’s a good idea for a sequel.