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Review: Visuals of ‘The Current War: Director’s Cut’ can’t obscure film’s torrent of factoids

Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse in the movie ‘The Current War: Director’s Cut’
Michael Shannon in the movie “The Current War: Director’s Cut.”
(Dean Rogers / 101 Studios)

It’s never a great sign when the controversy surrounding a movie is more fascinating than the film itself. Back in 2017, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War” became a casualty of the Weinstein scandal, when producer Harvey Weinstein took his own cut of the film to the Toronto International Film Festival right before his crimes were exposed. The film was delayed for two years while Gomez-Rejon and producer Timur Bekmambetov wrestled back the rights, and now “The Current War: Director’s Cut” is finally being released.

The cloak of controversy lends some intrigue to a film that is essentially a long Wiki rabbit hole. But the film, about the race between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) to establish what kind of electric current would reign supreme, could have been punishingly boring and dry. Fortunately, Gomez-Rejon recognized this potential and has therefore thrown a whole heck of a lot of filmmaking at it.

Gomez-Rejon never lets the camera rest. It zooms and waggles and appraises, finding glorious compositions and tracking shots (shoutout to cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon). The editing is lightning-swift, zipping through montages and flashbacks and split screens. It’s somewhat dizzying. But the story certainly moves, never bogged down in minutia or fussy details.

It’s also a good thing the script by Michael Mitnick never asks the audience to fully comprehend the particularities between direct and alternating current, just that Edison championed direct, Westinghouse went for alternating, and the two men engaged in an all-out market war to see who would come out on top and light up the country. For a film about a bunch of squabbling inventors, the concepts are easy to grasp.

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Cumberbatch is in a familiar mode. Having been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” in 2015, he is comfortable as the prickly, workaholic genius who doesn’t play well with others. Although the film acknowledges Edison’s fame and the myth around him as the greatest inventor of the era, it seeks to complicate it as well. It lifts up and lauds Westinghouse as a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur who sought to work with Edison, was snubbed and then steamrolled the competition with cheaper and more efficient service. As Westinghouse, Shannon plays him as someone invested in fair play, but willing to do what needs to be done to succeed.

A film can’t quite sustain itself on competitions of capitalism alone. And Mitnick’s script layers in the controversy surrounding the use of the electric chair for executions, heightening the suspense and stakes. It offers an ethical crisis to Edison, who vowed never to hurt anyone with his creations but secretly advised on the building of the chair nevertheless. As the film builds to its conclusion, it revels in the possibilities, both wondrous and terrible, afforded by the grand harnessing of electricity.

For those who never knew about the conflict between Westinghouse and Edison, who later patented the kinetoscope and inspired the birth of moviemaking itself, “The Current War: Director’s Cut” is an interesting yarn. Although one can’t shake the feeling that it’s just a Wikipedia article jazzed up with a lot of fun camera tricks and some cinematic wizardry, Westinghouse and Edison would have to be proud of the amazing movie magic.

Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic

‘The Current War: Director's Cut'
Rated: PG-13, for some violent content and thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In general release

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