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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Current War, Review: DC Edison v/s AC Westinghouse

The Current War, Review: DC Edison v/s AC Westinghouse

Unless you do some background reading, this review included, you will not guess that the film is not about a conventional war but about the rivalry between Thomas Alva Edison, credited with inventing Direct Current operated incandescent bulbs, and their Alternating Current based, dynamo-run variants, developed by George Westinghouse, back in the 1880s. It’s a double-barrelled bio-pic that spouts too much jargon and is not saved by faithful recreation of ambience, and studied performances.

Having told you that it is a bio-pic, it need not be repeated that the film is ‘inspired by true events’. Power (electricity) titans Edison and Westinghouse were in a race to determine whose electrical system would light-up small cities, expand to other areas in the USA, and, by extension, the whole world. Edison has decided on Direct Current (DC), but it is limited in range and expensive. Moreover, his bulbs could only be lit for about 13 ½ hours, non-stop. Westinghouse sets out to prove Alternating Current (AC) can work over longer distances, at significantly lower cost. Brilliant Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla arrives in the States, and begins working with Edison, but is disappointed by Edison's unwillingness to reconsider his ideas, and to fulfil what Tesla thought was a financial promise, which Edison passes off as just a joke. Tesla then leaves Edison's team, and tries to set-up his own company, finally joining hands with Westinghouse.

Edison suggests that AC is dangerous and engages in a publicity war, with the help of the press, while Westinghouse stands behind the technical merits of AC. As Edison struggles to find ways to make DC more affordable, Westinghouse attempts to get the high-voltage AC system to work with motors (dynamo). Edison's beloved wife dies, and Westinghouse is also struck with personal tragedy. Both face large financial risk. To further damage the reputation of AC, Edison shows that it easily electrocutes animals, and secretly works to help the creators of execution of convicted murderers by ‘electric chair’. Edison turns down all offers by General Sherman to create weapons, insisting that he will never invent anything that can take the life of a human being.

Michael Mitnick is a playwright who had written only one film, The Giver, before he wrote The Current War. It has a very literary feel, though many panoramic shots have been included to give it an outdoor look. I am afraid the title is a misnomer. Who will associate War with electric currents? And the ‘current’ war is set in the 1880s, 130 years ago.

In 2011, Michael Mitnick's screenplay made the Black List, an industry survey of "most liked" screenplays not yet produced. In 2012, it was reported that Timur Bekmambetov's company, Bazelevs, had acquired the rights to Mitnick's screenplay. Bekmambetov was set to direct it himself. After many more developments during 2012-16, the film was shelved and sold, following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. It was eventually bought by Lantern Entertainment (the successor of The Weinstein Company), who then sold the domestic distribution rights to 101 Studios. After discovering a final cut privilege clause in Executive Producer Martin Scorsese's contract, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon convinced him to allow for reshoots and to trim ten minutes off the original version's runtime, resulting in the film that was eventually released in the United States on October 25, 2019. It comes to Mumbai a week later, running for 102 minutes. Gomez-Rejon says that Scorsese actually cut and handed over the film to him, pretty much in the director’s cut shape in which it sees the light of day.

Today, we remember Edison for the bulb and the phonograph, which also while Westinghouse is remembered more as a brand. Edison’s own company went through several phases, of being defunct and acquired/re-acquired. Westinghouse continues to be a major manufacturer. The USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, was launched with a reactor built by Westinghouse, in 1960. In, 1969 Westinghouse cameras captured the first moonwalk, for viewers back on earth. 1977 marked the introduction of the first airborne surveillance radar system.

Neither character emerges white, though Westinghouse shows more shades of grey. Personal lives are integrated, yet kept to a minimum, with the major thrust being towards technology and science, greed and fame. Tesla is shown as such a simpleton that he asks for a ridiculously low price for his invention from Westinghouse. A tour de force is the Tesla brainwave of nurturing electricity from the Niagara Falls, which is rightly kept for the very end.

The Current War marks the third outing for Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). Though he shows great attention to detail and has a hand-picked cast to back him, the soul is felt more in its absence. It is an x factor that is missing, because, to be sure, there is plenty of drama, romantic and sublime love and confrontational scenes as well. Perhaps the whole concept fails to click or strike a chord. One needs to mention the scene in which Westinghouse is waiting for Edison’s train to arrive, and to escort him to his house as a dinner and house-guest. Edison refuses to stop the train, while the entire entourage of the Westinghouse family and their staff are left high and dry. Scenes like these speak highly of Gomez-Rejon’s craft, which is spent here, sadly, on a losing cause.

Being a science graduate, I found it difficult to keep pace with the jargon and technology, so the fate of non-science background movie-goers would be far worse. Moreover, being a double biopic, triple if you count Tesla, there are too many characters, and you tend to lose track of who’s who as the film plies along. Finally, there is nobody who you can sympathise with. All are grey personalities. Only Tesla, the least important of the three, is whiter than the others. Even George’s wife is shown as unscrupulous and manipulative. When you have so many lead players in the negative zone, interest in the goings-on diminishes significantly. Add to that the 130 year time machine warp, and you will know why the film does not work.

English actor Benedict Cumberbatch is dependable as ever, though he impressed more in The Imitation Game, another biographic movie. You might have also enjoyed his work as Doctor Strange in The Avengers series. He has co-produced the film, which might be tilting a little bit in favour of Edison. The American Civil War incident flashback, revealed in parts, paints Westinghouse as a man full of cunning and guile. Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Nocturnal Animals, The Shape of Water), as Westinghouse, is a good foil, with features in sharp contrast to those of Cumberbatch, and made even more different by make-up. Mouthing profundities with a deadpan look, he is very much in character. Nicholas Hoult as Tesla really impresses. The British actor was earlier seen in X-Men, Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix.

Playing Westinghouse’s better half is Katherine Waterston, the London-born actress who appeared in Alien Covenant and Steve Jobs. An important role, effectively essayed. Tuppence Middleton, seen just a few weeks ago in Downtown Abbey and in Jupiter Ascending and The Imitation Game a while ago, is at her sparkling best in a small but significant role as Edison’s wife. Here is another English actor, Tom, though his surname is Holland, playing Edison’s Man Friday, Samuel Insull, with a great amount of commitment and restraint. Remember him in The Avengers and Spider Man?

Cast as Franklin Pope, Westinghouse’s chief inventor, Irishman Stanley Townsend fits the bill quite well. Red-nosed banker and bank-roller J.P. Morgan, the butt of a Morse-code joke in the film, is played by Englishmen Matthew Macfadyen. One reason why we have so many British members in the cast would be the fact that back in 1880, the British influence on America was still prominent, and it must be only in the 20th century that it was completely shaken off, with American English acquiring an identity almost all its own. Due credit to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and editors David Trachtenberg and Justin Krohn.

It is a wonder that The Current War was even released, but no big surprise that it failed to create any ripples at the box-office. That, however, is no criterion in ranking it as a film that can be watched, particularly if Edison and Westinghouse, DC (NO, not the comic-book and movie series franchise) and AC mean anything to you.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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