Why didn’t this film get more attention and a wider release? I realize that the subject matter (the turn of the 20th-century battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over which system would deliver the electricity that Americans needed to take advantage of the new Edison light bulb) is a little esoteric, but with this cast it should have been an easier sell. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, and Nicholas Hoult.
The Plot in Brief: Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) wishes to electrify the East Coast, so that cities and towns can enjoy the benefits of his new incandescent light bulb. Edison believes the key to this proposition is the use of Direct Current (DC), which is expensive and doesn’t travel far, but is very safe. George Westinghouse buys up several patents and decides to compete with Edison for the light sockets of America. Westinghouse cobbles together a system using Alternating Current (AC), which is cheaper and travels farther, but is more dangerous. Both men realize that winning the contract to electrify the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that summer would be a public relations coup that would cement the success of the victor.
Critics were not kind to The Current War (one even compared it to an episode of Drunk History) but I learned so much. I must confess that I did not know very much about wunderkind Nicola Tesla (who briefly worked for Edison but later invented an electric motor that would work with Westinghouse’s Alternating Current). At the end of the film, dreamer/genius Tesla muses about an electrical system that doesn’t need wires. I knew very little about George Westinghouse. I did not know that industrialist J.P. Morgan had a financial interest in both competing electrical systems. I did not know that Edison consulted on the manufacture of the first practical electric chair. Fascinating!
I am guessing that most of us these days have six dollars, two hours to spare, and working electricity. Check out The Current War; it’s illuminating.