They are men of ambition, men of vision. They are inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), and in “The Current War: Director’s Cut” they are business rivals locked in an intense struggle to shape the future.
Both are intent on, as Edison boldly proclaims early on, “to give light” to the world. That light would be electric, incandescent, shoving aside candles and kerosene lanterns and gas jets, making the future brighter than had been possible before they brought their formidable intellects to create the devices and infrastructure that would transform society.
Opening in 1880 and tracking the rivalry through the early 1890s, the picture follows the ups and downs of the men’s professional and personal fortunes.
Cumberbatch brings a singular intensity to Edison, portraying him as driven, brilliant, impatient, overflowing with ideas for inventions. However, the tenderness and devotion he brings to the scenes with his wife and two children are very moving.
Edison is also, to his core, a showman. That is revealed right at the start when he wows a crowd of top-hatted potential investors by lighting up a snow-shrouded nighttime field with row upon concentric row of his newly invented light bulbs, switched on suddenly to dazzling effect.
And again, later, also at night, he lights up a block of downtown Manhattan to dramatically demonstrate the commercial potential of his bulbs, which are powered by direct current (DC). The massive throng in the street oohs and aahs.
Edison’s DC is directly challenged by the system of alternating current (AC) promoted by Westinghouse and his sometime associate Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). AC has the advantage over DC in that it can be transmitted over vastly longer distances than DC, which is limited to about one mile from its generating source. And that is at the heart of the Current War of the title: Which system will win out over the other?
Shannon’s Westinghouse is a kindlier individual than Edison, equally devoted to his fiercely supportive wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), but no less determined to promote his AC system.
The two wage their war through competing press conferences and demonstrations of their technologies. The development of the electric chair is a crucial source of conflict. Edison, whose often-stated refusal to allow his technology to be used to kill people, claims AC is deadly dangerous, and then deviously works to reinforce that claim. That effort culminates in a bitter courtroom fight.
Hoult’s Tesla plays a relatively minor role in the story, but his character embodies a devotion to a purely theoretical approach to the issues underlying the war. In the role of Edison’s devoted assistant Samuel Insull, Tom Holland serves as the conscience of the picture, struggling to rein in his boss’s impulsiveness.
Conversations about competing business strategies, which take up a great deal of “The Current War,” would seem to be a recipe for a dull movie. But the fervor and intelligence Cumberbatch and Shannon bring to their roles make for a gripping experience.
The manner in which those performances are packaged by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon gives them heightened effectiveness.
This is an extraordinarily handsome movie, packed with striking visuals, such as the two let-there-be-light scenes mentioned above. Costumes, makeup (lots of impressive period facial hair is on view) and opulent interiors strikingly captured by director of photography Chung Chung-hoon make the picture a feast for the eyes.
★★★½ “The Current War: Director’s Cut,” with Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, Tuppence Middleton, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, from a screenplay by Michael Mitnick. 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing/violent images, and thematic element. Opens Oct. 25 at multiple theaters.