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The Current War: Edison and Westinghouse's charged battle

 

THE CURRENT WAR
directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

A drama about the rivalry between two early tech moguls is more illuminating than electrifying.

We live in an age when domestic electricity doesn’t just light our homes but now charges the vehicles to get us there. The Current War is an entertaining reminder about how the Western world first plugged in. The story of the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to establish their own technology as the dominant way to bring electricity into US households is rendered as an extremely exciting and fast-paced historical drama by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (making the leap from his indie flick Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).

With a top-class cast, lush costuming and production design and the unexpected dispatch of a few supporting characters, The Current War pulls out all the stops to make science not only accessible but also appealingly watchable.

Benedict Cumberbatch, yet again playing a real-life boffin after turns as Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, acquits himself with typical panache as Edison, a genius whose workaholic tendencies have remarkably not thwarted his loving marriage to Tuppence Middleton’s Mary. On inventing direct current (DC) as an effective method for enabling the electric light bulb to be used by all, Edison and his loyal secretary (Tom Holland) approach banker JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) for money to support his patent. Meanwhile, across the country, Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse uses his considerable wealth and clout to promote his alternating current (AC) as a better and cheaper method of delivering power for domestic and industrial use. A commercial and personal feud ensues between the two titans – Edison, a veritable public celebrity, and Westinghouse, the industrial tycoon – as they vie to become provider to the people. The fight soon gets dirty over safety questions and accusations of criminal negligence.

There is plenty of juicy stuff and even the odd chuckle in this engrossing and informative tech-history movie, with strong performances and pacy editing that propels the story through 13 years.

In one delightful scene, in which Edison is invited to Westinghouse’s mansion for dinner, the gathered staff are crestfallen when he declines to show – exacerbating Westinghouse’s chagrin and underscoring Edison’s blinkered inability to schmooze for the sake of success.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is the surprising subplot on the morality of building an electric chair as a way to perform humane executions.

It undoubtedly pushes the envelope of “artistic licence”, but it helps make this an illuminating history lesson.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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