‘The Current War’: Illuminating Historical Drama Explores Edison-Westinghouse Rivalry

The story of one of the biggest rivalries that most people have never heard of has finally made it to the big screen. “The Current War” puts two fine actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, up against each other as the great inventor Thomas Edison and innovative engineer George Westinghouse, respectively. This historical drama from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tells the story of the electricity titans’ race to determine whose electrical system would power the Chicago’s World Fair and eventually the whole world.

When asked by Entertainment Voice what drew Gomez-Rejon to Michael Mitnick’s screenplay, he explained how he wasn’t so much interested in making a film about electricity as he was in exploring the human drama. “What I liked was not a battle between two men, but between ego and ambition versus humility, and that posed all these questions, like what is the nature of success? How far will we go to be remembered? That was exciting.”

Gomez-Rejon and Mitnick certainly had their work cut out for them with this one, as the director explained how he had to make choices in order to “communicate the drama and the themes” that inspired him to make the movie to begin with. The end result is a dynamic tale that centers not only around Edison and Westinghouse, but also inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who ends up working for both men at different points in time.

“It was a journey of self-discovery for myself,” said Gomez-Rejon of the process of bringing the character to life. “How much was I Edison? How much of Westinghouse is in me? And the fear, certainly in the previous incarnation of the movie, was would I die a dreamer and never be able to realize what was in my head, the way it worked out at times for Tesla? I’m not comparing myself to them when it comes to talent or intellect or anything like that, but just the idea of how much ambition you have and how much you have to keep it in check.”

Tesla could not have been an easy character to cast, as the actor had to hold his own against Cumberbatch and Shannon, but Hoult does a fine job. Gomez-Rejon revealed that he wanted someone with rockstar qualities for the part. “[Hoult] was just perfect, because I was always thinking of David Bowie for that role, a young Bowie.” 

The supporting cast includes Tom Holland, who shot “The Current War” shortly after wrapping “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” With his boyish looks and a seriousness beyond his years, the London-born actor was a perfect fit to play Samuel Insull, Edison’s young secretary who moved from England to New Jersey to work with the inventor.

Then there’s the ladies, Marguerite Westinghouse (Katherine Waterston) and Mary Edison (Tuppence Middleton), the wives who both played integral roles in shaping their husbands’ characters and careers. Through Mary, the theme of mortality is beautifully explored, as after her untimely death, Edison becomes more obsessed with his phonograph, his genius invention that has allowed him to preserve a part of his love, her voice. Here, we see how his devotion to this technology impacted the world.

“I didn’t want the female characters to be the woman in the shadows or the victim,” explained Gomez-Rejon. “It was important to me to flesh them out as best we could with the time that we had with them on screen to make them unique and strong. They all serve a specific purpose to the story, and those men would be nothing without them”

As for Mrs. Westinghouse, she pushes her relatively humble husband to aim for greatness. “He treated her as an equal,” declared Gomez-Rejon. “She was a partner at [his company] WABCO with him and was treated as such by all the employees. That intimacy between them was key, as opposed to the way Edison communicates his intimate moments and feelings, which is through technology.” 

Gomez-Rejon and Cumberbatch do a superb job of bringing to light Edison’s little-known dark side. In his quest to beat Westinghouse and damage his reputation, he sets out to prove that his rival’s alternating current electrical system can be deadly to humans. His resulting demonstrations lead to the development of the electric chair and a grim subplot involving the first man sentenced to be executed by electrocution, murderer William Kemmler (Conor MacNeil). While Kemmler awaits his fate, Edison and Westinghouse compete to illuminate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

As “The Current War” was filmed in and around London, Gomez-Rejon and his crew had a challenge in making that area stand in for New York, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and, finally, Chicago. “Chicago always had to be this climatic, operatic moment, when we were juxtaposing the wonder of electric light with the [electric chair execution].” Through the use of careful storyboarding, CGI, and period-appropriate architecture in England, the team was able to make it happen with their limited resources, as Gomez-Rejon had to take a surgical approach, shooting only what was absolutely needed. The remarkable end result makes it look as if he had more of a budget than he actually did.

Just like the great inventors, Gomez-Rejon had to work for his own light at the end of the tunnel. Shortly after the world premiere of “The Current War” at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, the sexual abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced. A casualty of the collapse of The Weinstein Company, this “asset” remained in limbo until this year. 

“It’s a real gift and a triumph in a lot of ways, to be able to get a second chance,” revealed Gomez-Rejon. “The silence between TIFF and my second chance was deafening. There was a lot of shame, because I feel like I had let down so many people who took the journey with me. But it did give me a moment, away from the chaos, to collect my thoughts…”

The director used the downtime to think about and take notes and how he would recut the film if given the opportunity. Luckily, Lantern Entertainment eventually acquired TWC’s assets, and 101 Studios committed to releasing Gomez-Rejon’s cut of “The Current War.”

Now that it’s all finished, Gomez-Rejon can finally take a breath and look to his next move. “I’m close to deciding on my next film, but I’ve been so obsessed with finishing and releasing this one that I haven’t really allowed myself to make another movie, because that would have been accepting that this one was over. And now it’s really over, so I’m ready to move on.”

 “The Current War” opens Oct. 25 nationwide.