The Current War

Young folks today mightn’t realise it, but AC/DC isn’t just the name of an ancient Aussie rock band, nor is it just how unwoke, unenlightened, un-PC baby boomers used to describe LGBQTIA people.   As everyone over 60 knows, AC/DC stands for Alternating Current as opposed to Direct Current. 

Youngsters might also not know that as recently as the 1880s – a mere 140 years ago – we didn’t have electric light or power, or that there was a big argument among the great minds of the time about how best to get it happening – AC or DC. 

Foremost among those great minds was the brilliant inventor Thomas Edison, who invented the light globe, the phonograph (ancestor of the record-player), the motion-picture camera and the dictaphone among many other useful things.  He also made big improvements to the telegraph and the telephone, after the electric power thing was settled in the AC/DC war, which he lost.  (No apologies for the spoiler there – this is history, dammit, and if you don’t know these basics by now – well, you SHOULD!)

Thomas Edison

The ‘war’ of the title refers to Edison’s rivalry with the enterprising industrialist George Westinghouse – the Westinghouse of household appliance fame – in the race to light up America.  Edison already believed in direct current and his overweening arrogance would not allow him to consider other ideas, especially if they came from his rivals.  The more thoughtful and open-minded Westinghouse came to believe in alternating current.

George Westinghouse 1884

Westinghouse admired Edison, who already had a reputation as America’s greatest inventor and something of a miracle-worker.  Early on in this story, Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) invites Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife to dinner, hoping to join forces on the electricity project.  Edison stands him up in the rudest possible way, and war is implicitly declared.    

Nikola Tesla

On his side Edison had his boundless energy, his natural brilliance and the backing of financier J.P. Morgan (Matthew McFadyen).  He could also have had the services of the visionary immigrant inventor Nikola Tesla (yes, that Tesla, played by Nicholas Hoult) but he alienates Tesla with his rudeness and his intransigence on the AC/DC thing, so Tesla takes his expertise and his own belief in alternating current to Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) instead.    

Benedict Cumberbatch is very good as Edison – the restless genius so convinced he’s the smartest guy in the room that he has no time for the normal pleasantries of life, or for kindness and affection towards anyone but his wife and children.  Shannon is restrained but charismatic as Westinghouse – a patient and courteous strategist open to reason and negotiation.  In many ways this movie is as much about the human qualities that determine history as it is about the science. 

The scientific stuff is done thrillingly, as in an early scene where Edison first lights up a section of Manhattan, having used his fame to ensure a big media turnout.  We also see the dark side of this new science with a horrifying but mercifully not-too-graphic demonstration of the first electric chair, the morals of which don’t seem to trouble Edison one bit.  He was by all accounts, not just this one, not a very nice man.

The Current War is directed by rising Mexican-American wunderkind Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.  His use of modern production techniques – pulsing music, gimmicky camera angles, slow-mo – makes this late 19th century story look as modern as the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  Still, with all the acting and directorial firepower behind such a terrific true story, this should have been a better movie than it turned out, and I’m not sure why.  I still loved it, but then I’m a biopic buff.